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Rated: 13+ · Campfire Creative · Fiction · Fantasy · #1995951
Bansbree: largest and most powerful city ever to sit on the borders of the Three Kingdoms.
[Introduction] Bansbree (BAHNZ-bray: border town), the largest and most powerful city ever to sit on the borders of the Three Kingdoms is alive with farmers from near and far ready to trade their crops and livestock; merchants and traders marketing their wares; craftsmen perfecting their trade; wandering soldiers of fortune, gypsies and thieves of every ilk practicing their skills; and adventurers of several intelligent species (Elves, Dwarves, Human, Gnomes, Shire-folk, brownies, Mages, Druids, etc) all citizens of the Three Kingdoms, co-mingling freely, if warily. If someone is to look, he or she can easily find a fare share of intrigue, squallor, wealth, and an impressive hero or two.


Bansbree: largest and most powerful city ever to sit on the borders of the Three Kingdoms

The city sits within the borders of the kingdom of men. The west wall of the city over looks the Sidhlein (SHEE-lin) River, a natural border shared by men and elves. The North and Northeastern wall is shadowed by the Dunsland (the 'u' sounds the same as in under) which marks the general border along the dwarven kingdom. The Dunsland is a rugged maelstrom of volcanic debrie, impassable except for a single road maintained by the Dunsland Dwarves.



Gus and Jeno


"Look at me." Gustav pounds his heavily muscled chest. "I am strong like a bull. I work hard. I drink wine and make love with my woman. But, it means nothing." Gustav turns his back on his brother. "I have done nothing in my life, Jeno. Nothing important."

"But, Gus, you have a wife. You have a business. You know a craft that is important." Jeno grabbed his brother's shoulder to turn him, but the big iron smith wouldn't turn. His head was bowed as if too heavy to keep up.

"Jeno, I have no sons. I have no children. Even daughters have their merits." Gustav turned and looked at his little brother. Jeno looked away when he saw the tears streaming down the face of a man he looked up to. The strongest man in Bansbree. "What can I do, Gus? You shame yourself crying like a baby."

"Have you heard nothing I've said?" Gustav pounded a heavy fist on the table, tipping over a bowl. Jeno stepped back, out of reach. "The Govenor calls the aid of all metal workers to his armory. Seems the Dunsmen are up in arms along the Sidhelien borders to the north west. The pointy-ears have crossed into the Dunsland and poached silver from an abandoned mine. Some Dunish lord caught a couple of the blighters red-handed and cut the hands from the thieves wrists on the spot."

"Yes, I heard the crier. And I've seen the notices." Jeno shook his head. "Bad buisness all around. If we get involved both the Elves and the Dwarves will turn on us."

Gustav flashed a toothy grin. "And I'm answering the Govenor's call."

"I'm taking Anez and the children out of the city. I'm going east."

"I know this. I need you to take Dorte with you."

Jeno's eyes opened wide and he shook his head in the negative as he stepped backwards toward the door. "She won't go, brother. You know as well as..."

Gus interrupted. "She will go. I will make sure of it. You just tell me when I need to deliver her to your wife's wagon."

"What? You going to hog-tie and gag her? Because you know that is what it's going to take."

Gus turned his back on Jeno and shrugged his big shoulders in a 'I'll do what I must' gesture. "Yes, something like that."



The Govenor's Palace


Patrikio Guarnez paces the length of his private study. It's rediculous the position the Sidhelien have placed Bansbree. The Grand Duke's communique simply warns me to tread cautiuosly. The nobleman laughed his sarcasm and he stopped pacing; but only for a moment. Well it is known, when walking through a pit of vipers, you will get bitten. Damn, Ilfili and his thieving. Bansbree is tied to him in trade, as Bansbree is tied to everywhere and everyone in the three kingoms, in trade. If a Dunsman happens to spy raw or smelted silver with the Dunish aura but not the Dunish stamp then Bansbree may be pulled into a disasterous war. Patrikio ran a heavily ringed hand through his medium length, and thinning hair. "Damn!"

"Father! Such boarish posturing will insure your complete isolation for sup."

Patrikio turned shame-faced toward his daughter. "My dear Felisa, is it time already?"

Felisa laughed lightly and shook her head as she accepted her father's hug and soft kiss on the cheek. "Soon. Mama sent me to remind you of the time. She worries you are too preoccupied over this silliness between the Elves and the Dwarves."

"I assure you my daughter, it isn't silly when war looms as real as Duilin's ax."

"Oh Father, men don't go to war with the likes of the Fae or the Duns. Men profit with trade on both sides."

Patrikio looked at Felisa's confident smile and knew his arguement to the contrary would fall on deaf ears. "You are historically correct, my dear."

"Oh, Pater. Lets go to the hall, supper will be served soon."

Patrikio took his daughter's proffered hand and escorted her to the hall. As usual, the riches of Bansbree was well represented at the table. Unfortunately, the govenor's stomach soured and he was forced to leave the table before the third course was served.

*Vine1**Vine2*
*Vine1**Vine2*



And so goes the present political atmosphere of the Three Kingdoms and the nearly independent City State of Bansbree. You as a contributor to the story are welcome to expand upon the introduced characters or to introduce your own.

Introduce yourselves and the citizens with whom you associate. Given the possibility of divergent participant's time zones, I will allow two days for a contributor to add their contribution. If more time is required for the completion of an addition, email me and I won't skip you automatically. If you know you won't be able to contribute within a 48 hour window, go ahead and skip yourself as courtesy to others participating in creating this world of Fantasy, Myth, Legend, and I'm not adverse to a bit of Steampunk. The idea is to have fun and do what we, as writers, do best.

Cassandra


Cassandra sped around the corner of a deteriorating stone wall. She squeezed into a shadowed crevasse, scraping her forehead on a jagged piece of mortor. Biting her lower lip and holding her breath, she waited. Pounding boots on the stone road grew louder then slowed to a stop.

"She went this way, I'm sure of it." The voice was winded and peevish.

Cassandra closed her eyes and placed her hands over her mouth and nose to muffle the breath she needed.

"Yeah! I saw her turn the corner, but which way she go afterwards?" The second voice spoke in clipped words between breaths. "Damn, that gypsy."

The shadows of two men fell over the break in the wall where Cassandra hid. Her heart pounded in her chest and fear nearly trembled her legs out from under her. She stayed frozen and quiet, this wasn't a game and these guys were out for blood. Her blood.

"Morty isn't going to be happy that we lost her." The smaller, thinner shadow moved down the road a couple steps. His fretful complaint growing shrill.

"Ahh, shad-up Squeeks. You go that way. I will go this way. The one who spies her first nabs her and brings her to the square." The taller, thicker shadow moved away from the wall.

Cassandra got a good look at the unkempt roust-a-bout. She'd crossed paths with him before but providence had intervened. This time providence was a crack in a wall.

"But, Crusher, what we do if neither of us finds her?"

"We meet in the square with or without the brat."

The men moved on their perspective routes and the sound of their boots faded in the distance. Cassandra waited for her heart to slow and her knees to strengthen. Then, she waited even longer. Shadows were growing long when the adolescent foundling emerged from her hinding spot. The two men would have met at the square hours before. She'd heard that Mortimer Langster had a reward out for her, but this was the first indication the rumor could well be true. She would be wise to hang alone along the southside for a while.

Cassandra turned to the road that would, eventually, lead south. She skirted the shadows and looked around corners, before stepping out into the open. If anyone saw her, they didn't take notice of her. The city was full of orphans scavenging in the streets and behind shops. She grew up competing with the stray dogs for food. She was ten summers old when her parents disappeared. That was three years ago.

At first she sold the items her parents had crafted for sale in Bansbree's market. The goods didn't last a full year. She tried her hand at weaving, and she tried to shape the silver wire into pretty rings and bracelets like her da had done. All she accomplished was losing the only home she'd ever known as well as everything else except what she had on her back to some street thugs. She'd learned to survive from 'Shivers'. He was younger than her, but was born to the streets. Her street name was Moth. Shivers gave her that name because he found her under a street lamp.

Cassandra stepped out from behind a cart to scamper across the lane when something caught between her feet and tripped her headlong onto the hard stone pavement.

"Got you."

Huge hands picked her up from the street before the pain of the night stick smashing her ankles or the cuts and abrasions of her hard fall were felt.

"Morty is waiting for you, little sister. And I gots you clamped tight."

"No, please."

Crusher laughed and Cassandra knew her doom had found her at last. Mortimer Langster had cast his net and there was no place in Bansbree where his net didn't reach.
Night stole through the narrow streets. The denizens of the city gradually melted away to skulk In their hidey-holes, till morning.

The figure of a dirty unkempt street urchin seemingly foraged near the thicket that ran along the bottom of the of the Inner West Wall. He glanced about him as he worked, but the area was devoid of competition for the moment.
With the swiftness of a hunting hawk, he dropped to his knees and disappeared into what looked like an inpenetrable wall of greenery. Shivers crawled several yards along the well-worn narrow space along the base of the wall before squeezing through a small break in the masonry of the thick walls.

He had found this hiding place three years ago and had gradually enlarged the tiny entrance as he grew into the gangling youth he was today. A small bricked up door was set into the back wall of what looked like an old storage room.

One end of the narrow compartment was stacked with an accumulation of the various items of salvage that Shivers had unearthed over the years. The other had a rough platform piled with a thick layer of old sacking topped with the moth-eaten remnants of an old woollen blanket that he had pulled from the Sidhelein several summers ago.

Shivers relaxed and dropped on to his makeshift bed. Cassandra should have been here by now. What could have delayed her? He went through his pockets and laid the contents out for inspection. .

He took the half loaf he had liberated from a table just inside the baker's open kitchen window and broke off a generous portion. Leaning back against the wall he glanced at the entrance from time to time as he bit into it. A sudden frown creased his forehead.

Where was she? Morty had put a price on Cassandra's head three days ago and she had already almost been captured twice since then. He stowed his haul of the day and readied himself to go out and search for his friend.

He left his lair with the cloak of full night wrapped around him as he traversed the dark streets towards the lights of the town's still busy hub. Perhaps he could find news of Cassandra in the chatter of the revellers.
Elric stared at the tavern wench who set the tankard of spring water before him just a bit harder than necessary to let him know her displeasure. Likely, she got a small part from the sale of various drinks, but he preferred a clear head, especially now.

There was no better place in the world to gather information other than a tavern. The people of Bransbree liked to think their city was so grand, but then they'd never seen Tracledon--nor would they ever. The underground dwarven city was forbidden to outsiders.

He lifted the tankard to take a sip of the cool water. A trace of something sour wafted from the water. He formed a protection spell and released it then drank the water.

He waited a short time then bent over to lay his head on the table, hoping to learn something useful.

* * *

"Well it took long enough," Younce growled at Sylena. "You promised quick results."

"It is not my fault," she protested. "This is the first time I have tried the gorse root on a dwarf."

Younce raised his hand as though to strike her. She laid her hand on the knife at her right hip. "You may want to think twice about that."

Two men entered the small backroom, dragging the dwarf between them. Younce pointed to a place against the wooden wall. "Leave him there and go," he gruffly demanded.

They dropped the dwarf on the wooden floor, collected their payment, and left. "How long will he be out?"

"No more than an hour."

"Get the manacles and make sure he is secured properly."

"I wasn't born yesterday," she snapped.

He glared at her response, she tilted her head slightly and rolled her hips from side to side as she walked away. Within a few minutes, the dwarf was secured. She wondered at his age. His reddish brown beard covered most of his face. When she was serving him, his unusual, green, piercing eyes made her hands shake and almost drop the tankard. The brush of a touch on her mind was imagination. no one could see into the mind of another.

She hoped Younce didn't plan to kill him. She wanted to get rich as much as the next person but not at the expense of someone's life.

"Is there anything good to eat today?" Younce asked.

"Fresh venison."

"Bring me a thick venison steak and an ale. If I need to wait, I want something to hold me over."

When Sylena entered the hot kitchen, Edwart tried to pinch her ass as she went past him, but she knew his tricks, and he jerked back his hand with a small shriek from the warning left on the back of it by her sharp fingernails. "I'll use my knife next time," she warned.

"C'mon Syl, don't be like that. I'll give ya two silvers for five minutes."

She spun quickly on the balls of her feet, drawing her knife at the same time. The point of it pressed into the top of Edwart's throat. A small trickle of blood made a thin line down to his collar bone. "If you wish to live a longer life, see the tavern keep, collect your pay, and don't ever come back."

She continued to serve guests in the tavern. When Younce's food was ready, she took it to the backroom, finding him and the dwarf gone. She almost dropped the food as a knife pressed into her neck. A soft beard at her ear startled her. "Come to the Great Tree after dark. I wish to speak to you of something."

The knife was gone, and she quickly turned but no one was there. She felt a shiver of fear, wondering what happened to Younce.
The trees seemed to bow slightly as Moonwillow made her way through the forest. A smile sat comfortably upon her tanned face as she touched each one with words of encouragement, praise, and thanks for their continued protection through out her travels. She'd taken the "Druid's Path" through the forest instead of the normal trail. Darkness was approaching but she was not afraid, she loved when the moonlight streamed down between the leaves.

Moonwillow had just completed her second cycle of druid training and felt confident in her abilities. She got a sense of other growing powers inside of her though, and she was curious to see what she could do. So she signed up to travel to Bansbree as part of her Priestess training to help and aid those who were in need of healing and spiritual workings.

"Moon! Will you please be quiet for five minutes so that I can take a nap, please, I beg you!" moaned Starwolf, "If I hear another Mother Earth blessing prayer I'm going to scream." He turned over in the wagon and settled between bags of herbs, flowers, corn meal, and bolts of cloth. His snoring began almost immediately.

The sound of the wagon wheels as they turned through the forest floor was a comfort. Moonwillow began to sing to herself as she walked besides Epona, "Fur and feather and scale and skin, different without but the same within..." then all of the sudden her horse stopped, neighed, and shook her head towards a dark passage ahead, "What is it, girl? Are you afraid of the dark?" Moonwillow giggled. She stepped forward and chanted beneath her breath. She swirled her hands around each other in a circular pattern until a light began to build between her palms and she tossed it towards the darkness. The light ball hung beneath the canopies of the trees and lit up a small clearing. Something lay within. She gasped and stepped back, bumping into the cart.

"Ugh, Moon!" Starwolf growled and sat up, but caught sight of the thing lying within the clearing, "What the heck is that?"

"I don't know, but I think I'm going to take a closer look."

"Are you kidding me? We just started on our mission and you're already trying to get us killed? I'd like to make it through my final cycle of training." Starwolf huffed.

"Oh, my mistake, I thought you were training to be part of the Warriors Guild not the scaredy cat guild." Moon said as she walked forward. Epona followed her out of habit but started so fast that it jolted the cart and knocked Starwolf backwards.

"Ouch!" Starwolf muttered and rubbed his head, "Guess I'm coming whether I like it or not." He hopped out, grabbed his spear and caught up with Moonwillow as she approached the clearing.

"Ooh! I think it is what father called a 'Dwarf'" Moon said, flinging her long braid behind her as she stepped over a log into the clearing.

"Ah yes, I've never seen one in person." Starwolf said getting closer out of curiosity. He poked at the dwarf but it didn't move. "It's breathing but..."

Moonwillow kneeled by the dwarf and rolled it over on it's back. It had a thick blonde beard, plaited and tied with a leather strip. but was otherwise naked, revealing to both of them that despite the beard, it was most definitely female.

"Grab me some furs from the cart, Star, now please!" Moon ordered and rubbed her hands together until they glowed with a bright white light. She placed her hands over the dwarf woman, just an inch above her skin, beginning with her head and moved down over her body until she reached her toes and then back up again.

Starwolf began dressing the dwarf woman in furs and clothing using leather ties to secure everything in place. She was dressed by the time she came to.

"Where am I? Who are you? What happ--" She jumped up and covered her body as part of her memory must have returned.

"It's OK, we were passing through and found you. I've healed your injuries and we've clothed you.," Moonwillow said in her 'special' enchanting voice to calm down the dwarf, "Please, have some water and corn bread, we're here in peace."

The enchantment seemed to work. "Thank you" said the dwarf, "I was robbed...and I don't remember much else"

"What's your name?"

"It's... I... " the dwarf struggled, "I don't remember."

"Do you remember where you are?"

The dwarf shook her head.

"Do you remember where you were headed?" Starwolf asked.

The dwarf shook her head again.

"Well, I'm Moonwillow, this is Starwolf and we're headed to Bransbee," Moonwillow pointed deeper into the forest, "Care to join us?"

"Yeah, guess until I can at least remember what's going on I could use the company, thank you so much for helping me."

Starwolf and the Dwarf got into the back of the cart and settled in. Moonwillow sat up front on the seat behind Epona and began to sing again as they went deeper into the forest. The ball of light followed them out as soon as they passed through the clearing, as Moonwillow willed it. The light floated back towards her and she allowed it to reabsorb into her palm.

A smile crossed her face yet again and she continued towards Bransbee.

Mortimer


The Man stood no taller than a human adolescent who hadn't yet experienced his growing spurt. Yet, Mortimer Langster ruled in Bansbree. He collected from the merchants and craftsmen. The venders paid tribute to him. If there was any thieving in or about the city, he was the one the goods were brought to for the exchange. Anyone who didn't wish to deal with Mortimer met with accidents or disappeared.

He sat at his table and drank deeply from a tankard of ale. The grouse had been particularly satisfying and he leaned back in his chair. A boy, maybe all of nine years old and a head shorter than his lord and master, stood behind the chair with a wet towel and a dry towel. He watched his master's ears. At the moment they were flattened tight against his head. The boy had learned this meant his master's mood was calm. What he watched for was when the ears fanned out ever so slightly to catch every sound. Elves were known for their keen senses and their magic. This Elf was notorious.

"Eddie, come forward and attend me."

The boy moved at the instant of Mortimer's lazy command. He washed the face and hands of his master before drying them. When he was finished, he bowed and waited for permission to clear the table.

Mortimer stood, laid a hand on the boy's head and smiled. "You have learned quickly, lad. Finish up in here and then off to the kitchen for your own meal."

"Yes, mi'Lordship. Thank-you, sir." Eddie turned to the task of clearing the table, cleaning around the table, and carrying the dishes and utensiles to the kitchen.

Mortimer retired to his den and sat down with a book titled, Of Dwarves and Maidens.

He'd read a couple pages when Jasper, his head doorman, entered a step inside the den. "Yes, what is it?"

"Sorry to disturb you mi'Lordship, a man who calls himself Crusher is seeking an audience."

"Tell him business hours are from dawn til dusk, and it is late. He needs to come back tommorrow."

"He has the girl, mi'Lord."

Mortimer put his book down, forgetting to place the marker between the pages first. He scowled as he stood and realized he'd lost his place. "Yes, you were correct to disturb me, Jasper. I will meet them in the drawing room east of the entry."

"Very well, mi'Lordship" Jasper turned and left Mortimer who scowled at the closed book. Now, I come to it. The gypsy waif who has caused a fair amount of trouble. How was I to know her parents were connected. The Elven Overlord of Bansbree straightened his rich, hunter-green silk vest and strolled toward the designated drawing room.


He entered the drawing room and nodded to Jasper to remain. The roust-a-bout, called Crusher, was someone never to trust. At the moment, he had proven invaluable, but it wouldn't be necessary to let the brigand know that.

Mortimer stood five feet from the filthy pair. He removed a scented handkerchief from his vest pocket and covered his nose to filter the stench. He didn't know which was worse the child dressed in sewer soaked rags or the man who probably hadn't seen the inside of a bath house in his life. Both needed to be thrown in the Sidhelein River and scrubbed raw.

"I brought her yer Lordship. I brought her straight away from the time I caught her. An' I didn't hurt her none after the taking." Crusher swung Cassandra around by the back of her shirt collar. She had a problem standing and from the darkening skin on the inside of her legs he wondered if the man had broken her ankles. Mortimer caught the meaning of he hadn't hurt her after he caught her. He felt relief at that distinction.

Mortimer walked up to the girl, she was nearly as tall as him, which shocked him. "Are you sure this is the one?"

"Yes, yer Lordship. This here is Cassandra the Moth. Just like yer warrant states." Crusher tipped the girl's face up so Mortimer could see her better.

Bansbree's underlord looked into the terrified brown eyes of a gutter rat. She bit her lip so hard blood welled around her teeth. "Jasper, get Dorisa, and quickly."

Jasper turned without a word, his long strides took him down into the servants quarters within minutes.

In the meantime..." Okay, Crusher. I believe this is the girl I've been looking for. Would you like a drink while we wait for my woman to come collect this urchin?"

The big man's eyes lit up. He even wiped spittle from his mouth with the back of a filthy hand. "Yes, yer Lordship. A drink would be most welcome, sir."

Mortimer stepped over to a cupboard and pulled a bottle of the best Dwarvish Spirits known in the Three Kingdoms; though as he poured two glasses, he doubted Crusher would appreciate the quality. His taste and gut had both been burned away from the cheap rot-gut found in the streets. But, it was worth it to have the gypsy finally in hand.

Silence settled over the room as the two men drank. It seemed Crusher's tastes weren't totally gone as he nursed and savored every drop that was given him.

Jasper, with Dorisa in tow, entered the room just as Crusher swallowed the last drop of amber liquid. Mortimer was relieved he wouldn't need to offer the man another drink.

"Dorisa, take this child, you might need to carry her. Jasper you help Dorisa carry the girl to the baths. Dory, clean her up and tend to her hurts, I'm sure she has more than a few."

Dorisa approached Cassandra with all the caution of approaching any cornered, wild animal. "Now, now you come with me and you will get a proper bath and fed a decent meal. Come child, no one is going to harm ye here."

~~~~
~~~~


The roust-a-bout was paid and gone; but, his stench still hung in his home. He sat and sipped another two fingers of the amber spirits all the while holding the scented kerchief to his nose. How could men stand themselves? How could they allow themselves to sink so low? He was staring at his glass as he swirled the contents when Jasper returned. Mortimer looked up. "Is she settling in or do we need to bolt her door for a month or two?"

"She won't be traveling very fast after a broken ankle, mi'Lord. But, I still suggest bolting her door for a while, so she doesn't hurt herself trying to run."

"That bastard did break her ankle then?"

"Appears so, sir."

"Was Dorisa able to mend her wounds?"

"Yes, mi'Lordship. But, magic can only do so much as you know."

"Yes, Jasper. If she were to jump from her window she could well rebreak the bone."

"Yes, mi'Lord."

"Tell Eddie I am ready to retire. And have the staff clean extra in this room first thing on the morrow. It reeks of the streets."

Jasper watched as a weary and troubled Elf Lord climbed the stair to his room. He had the girl; but now, his trouble really began.

~~~~
~~~~


Crusher fondled the leather purse with the ten gold coins. Just the weight of it and the fact that it was real leather and not some cheap canvas bag amazed the man. Hells times seven, the purse without the gold would bring enough to send him on a week long bender. And he didn't have to share it with Squeeks, neither. He'd caught the gypsy brat all by hisself. To bad he couldn't chance playing with the girly a while before turning her over, but word on the street was unharmed an' unspoiled for the full award.

The man headed straight for the Blooded Dagger Inn. He hid all but one gold coin in his boots, and other little folds and pockets sewn in his clothing and belt. He'd learned the hard way that even he could be rolled when he was passed out drunk. As he drank and told Clarissa, his favorite bar maid, the tale of how he captured and collected the Gypsy Moth Bounty and described the richness of Morty's house and even his servants dressed like Lords an' Ladies, he didn't notice a gangly youth listening under the bench.

Shivers had tried two other inns before he had settled in the Blooded Dagger. Doxy's Den had been almost deserted except for an old man dozing in a chair by the almost dead fire and city guard chatting up Doxy. The Twisted Sabre had been dominated by party of young bloods gambling and intent on drinking themselves into oblivion. Their antics had driven all the other customers elsewhere.

Shivers was sneaking his way around the crowded bar, his ears pricked for any mention of Cassandra when Crusher threw opened the door and pushed his way to the bar. While the barmaid and the newcomer bantered with one another, he dropped on all fours and scuttled under a nearby bench so that he could hear what was being said. Crusher had slapped a gold coin on the counter.

“A pint of yer finest ale, me girl, and be quick about it.” Clarissa’s eyes took on the steely glitter of greed as she poured ale from the cask behind the bar. She fluttered her eyelashes at him and leant forward across the bar, plonking the brimming tankard in front of the thirsty man and exposing her not inconsiderable charms to his admiring gaze.

“Where d’ya git this 'ere gold coin then, dearie?” She picked the coin off the counter and tested it with her teeth before putting it in the drawer under the counter and offering him a handful of change. Crusher tossed one of the coins to the barmaid and then put the rest in his pocket, and took several long pulls at the tankard before wiping his sleeve across his mouth.

“Well, Clarissa, me beauty, it was like this 'ere.” Crusher proceeded to recount the tale of how he had caught the young Gypsy, Moth, who had fought like a banshee and bit him several times before he managed to tie her up. His version resembled the truth only loosely. He glossed over the girl’s broken ankle and played down the amount of reward that Morty had given him for the capture of the young girl. By the time he had finished Clarissa had poured him another pint and had manoeuvred him to a seat at a nearby table. She sat on his lap and was flirting with him outrageously. Gold coins made the unsavoury brigand very attractive to an enterprising young woman like her.

Shivers held his rage at what had happened to Cassandra in check and cautiously backed out from under the bench and edged towards the door. He needn’t have worried. Crusher and Clarissa were intent on the prospect of altogether more venal proceedings. He reached the door without arousing any interest from the crowded bar and slid into the darkness outside, his mind in turmoil, to think that his friend had been treated so badly and was now in the hands of the hated Overlord Latimer. Heaven alone knew what that odious elf would do to her now that she was in his clutches.

He crossed the dark street outside the Blooded Dagger and slunk down one of the alleys leading towards the more salubrious part of the city, intent on finding some way of getting into the Latimer estate and rescuing Cassandra. When he reached the house most of it was in darkness. There were lanterns on either side of the main door, which was firmly shut against intruders. No doubt there would be guards in the hall behind the stout wooden door. The high walls offered no purchase to his feet when he tried to climb them.

He settled into the darkness of a doorway to consider his options. The sound of marching feet approached along the street and six members of the City Guard hove into view. Shivers pressed back further into the doorway to avoid being seen. These guards would not take it lightly if they found him loitering outside the home of their esteemed Overlord Latimer.
Sylena kept expecting Younce to appear anytime as the day went on, and the dwarf's voice, telling her to meet him at the Great Tree, haunted her as well. Bransbree was not a safe place to be wandering around after dark. Her curiosity was aroused; however, she would leave for the Great Tree while there was still light.

Younce's absence made leaving The Seven Stars tavern much easier. She turned to her left on the cobble stone street. The Great Tree was on a hill not far from the keep. Some people said that so long as the Tree stood the city would also stand. She believed it was a tree just like any other.

Before she left the tavern she'd donned a long grey cloak. Her journey toward the keep was quick and uneventful. A narrow dirt path wound up the hill where the Great Tree stood. the climb was not difficult, but it was tiring. She had wondered a number of times today why the dwarf wanted to meet here, and also why she even felt the need to come.

At the top of the hill, her eyes were naturally drawn to the tree. Its natural beauty held her attention. It was hundreds of feet high with white bark and yellow leaves. One thing she did notice was that there were no fallen branches or leaves on the ground. Perhaps someone kept it clean.

She continued toward the tree. No one else was in sight, but she imagined that the dwarf could be waiting on the other side of the tree.

"I'm glad you came."

The dwarf's voice sounded at her right side, but no one was there. A chill like that on a cold winter's day struck her, and she began to shiver. The air beside her began to shimmer, and she backed away. Suddenly, he stood before her. "A mage."

"I am here because of your father."

Sylena did not expect to be surprised by anything the dwarf said, but now she was dumb struck. "My father? He died when I was a small child. How could he send you?"

"You are right. He died many years ago, but the promise I made him still lives. He saved my life, and lost his in the process. I promised his spirit to watch out for you. Did you bring the pouch under the floor?"

"Yes, how did you know of that?"

"I have been listening in various inns and taverns throughout the city for weeks now. One thing is very consistent. There is a rumor of war in the air, and--"

"And you want to send me away."

Elric laughed. "Sorry, I would if I could. Truthfully, if this city falls, I believe disaster will fall on humans, dwarves, and elves."

Sylena shook her head. "The city defenses are formidable. What army could possibly threaten it?"

"The orcs formed an alliance with the goblins. Their hunger for war is like that of a man for his daily meals."

She laughed. "You might as well speak of haints and spectres."

"The threat is real regardless of how you think of it."

"You are the mage. What am I supposed to do?"

Sylena listened as Elric explained.

* * *

Younce opened his eyes to darkness. His splitting headache made it hard to arrange his thoughts into any kind of order. He remembered Sylena leaving to see to his dinner. He rose shakily to his feet and began shambling and stumbling his way over mounds of debris. This is the dump. The realization was not a happy one as he saw other shadows in the dark. He suddenly sat down as a sliver of fear pierced his mind. He was not mistaken for the shadowy form a short distance away was a goblin.

His mind protested that goblins would not dare come this close to Bransbree, but his eyes were not mistaken. He took slow breaths and waited as he checked for his hidden knives. After a few minutes of finding nothing, he gave up. He would remain quiet and wait. Goblins were fierce fighters and facing one without weapons would not be good.

The hours before daylight dragged ever so slowly, but finally the goblin was gone, and Younce hurried north on his way back toward the tavern. The city dump was outside of the walls, and he looked at their outline as he drew nearer. Two towers stretched up above the wall on either side of the gatehouse, and another twenty-eight towers were spaced all around the city wall.

The portcullis was down, and he approached the wicket. A heavily armed guard appeared at the door to permit him entrance. The narrow passageway between the two towers gave him a closed in feeling. He didn't get far as he noted that the drawbridge was up. Now he would have to wait some more.

The lowering of the drawbridge seemed to take twice as long as normal. And it was filled with people almost as soon as it settled to the ground. Even this early in the morning the city was hopping.

He stayed on the cobbled street that led to the keep, which rose up on a small hill in the middle of Bransbree. His tavern was a short way from the city wall. Voices from the open market filled the air. The noise really did grate on the nerves after awhile. The smell from the market was annoying as well. But then it fit right in with the overall stink of Bransbree.

A short way past the market, he came to his tavern: The Seven Stars. He looked up at the worn sign as he entered, making a mental note for Sylena to repaint it.

The dining room was about half full as normal for this time of day. He continued on to the back room, finding it empty. He entered the kitchen. Sade was tending some roasts on a spit. "Where's Sylena?"

She turned in his direction and shook her head. "She ne'er showed ta her room las' night. I pray a haint di'n't take her."

Younce released a curse invoking the moon and stars.

Sade put her hand to her mouth, saying in a half whisper, "You'd bring the dickens for sure."

Younce stormed from the kitchen to his small office where he moved a small desk then pried a board in the floor up. He sat back on his heels at the sight of the empty space, except for a knife. His stash was gone. The dwarf that Mortimer was looking for was gone along with Sylena. Younce didn't believe in coincidences. He screamed in fury.

The door creaked as it opened. One of Mortimer's minions was framed in the doorway. "I'm here for the weekly tribute." The man crumpled to the floor as Younce's knife found its mark.

He leapt up and dragged the man into the office. He searched him and found pouches of coin hidden all through his clothing. A lot of people would be answering the governor's call, and he would find an opportunity to make lots of money while staying alive.
Mirabella made her way back to her father’s shop. Her auburn hair bound back into a long braid that bounced against the length of her back. Her feet clipping along the cobbled walk that ran the length of the market district. Her arms were full of the bakery bread she had helped to make under Zelda Rainer’s tutelage.

Her own father’s shop, Twaning’s Iron Works sat along the line of blacksmith shops that now seemed busier with the buzz of possible war. The building itself sat snugged up against Gustav’s Iron Works. Beyond it, the market ventured out in several directions.

Mirabella slipped into the back of the shop and stopped when she heard gruff voices held just above a whisper.

“I’ve sent my wife Dorte with my brother Jeno and his family,” said a familiar voice.

“That must have taken a great deal of doing, Gus...” she heard her father say gruffly, his voice raspy from his tobacco habit.

“It was... but I think it wiser than having her stay here amid the uncertainty. You should send your family away as well...”

Mirabella held her breath. There was no way she would leave Bansbree. No way she would leave her father or her brother Fren. They would stand as one.

Her father grunted. “I need Fren here. I suspect war will bring us all much work. For all of us. We’ll have to brush up our skills in making swords and armour.”

“And Mirabella? What of her? She does not work the anvil or the bellows. She’s a girl.”

Mirabella felt the anger at that and was about to call out in her defence when she heard her father laugh. It rolled out of him tumbling over the roughness around him smoothing the place as it always did.

“You thought your wife was hard to send... Mirabella would be like a tiger, all fangs and claws... I would not even consider it. Her feistiness,” he chuckled again, “would get me set on my own glowing coals.”

“She’d be safer...”

“She’s safer here, Gustav. If I were to send her away she would only make her way back and that would be worse, I am certain. Here I know she is within my household and my care.”

“Still....”

“I won’t reconsider.” Mirabella smiled and stood a little taller, feeling her father’s faith.

Gustav shrugged. “You are much too indulgent of your daughter.”

"We each must make our way, Gustav. My daughter and son are all I have. We are united..."

"Are you to take on the Governor's Call then?"

"I will consider it, my family will decide together."

"Hmmm. You are the man of your family. It is you who should decide. Your children are to heed you."

"This from a man who has no children." Jebodiah muttered.

“That is a low blow, friend.” Gustav growled.

“Then watch your tone, my friend. My family is my life. We survive as blacksmiths... just like you. I suggest we let it go... there will be fighting enough soon, I dare say.”

Gustav grunted agreement with that.
Cassandra


"No need for all the tears, girl." Dorisa placed her palm on Cassandra's shoulder. The touch was as light as feather down and meant only as reassurance. But in that instant, Cassandra was alerted to something about this rotund woman in the employ of the elf lord.

Dorisa spoke softly and leaned down to try and make eye contact. "No one's to hurt you here."

Cassandra avoided the eye contact, but watched this woman warily. Dorisa had done something to her ankles and the left one, though very sore, didn't hurt like it had. This woman had healing hands and maybe could control weaker minds. Yet, there was something of truth, this woman was telling. Cassandra felt it when she laid her hand upon her shoulder. Dorisa, if that was really her name, wasn't intent on harming her; nor, was she in collusion to bring harm upon her.

"Tha's better, Sweety. Let Dorisa, care for you."

Cassandra stood favoring her left foot and closed her eyes as the woman began removing her clothing. The woman's mind was openly disgusted touching the filthy outer rags. Cassandra found some amusement from this and had to bite her lower lip to stifle a giggle.

"There, there Dear. No need for fear or modesty. I just healed that lip and you don't want to blood it again with your teeth. It's just a bath we prepare you for." Dorisa stepped away. "If you like, you can undress yourself, but a bath is what you will be taking."

Cassandra opened her eyes and looked at the kind woman. Her eyes were a muddy brown, like her mother's. "Why?"

Dorisa chuckled. "You have half the city streets and a good portion of the sewers about you child. It's a wonder you aren't sick half to death."

"No, why so kind?"

Dorisa looked at Cassandra and frowned. "Don't you know?"

"Dorita?"

"Yes, Dear." The woman took another step away from Cassandra and crossed her arms over her large bosom. "Why, you call me that?" Dorisa looked at the closed door to make sure it was still closed and they were alone.

"It's your name."

Dorisa shot a fearful look at Cassandra. "Not here it isn't."

"Why?" Cassandra whispered the question and also looked at the closed door.

Dorisa stepped close to the child and sat on the bench where she had healed the girl. "I am Dorisa because that is what the lordship calls me."

Cassandra shook her head and closed her eyes again. "But, you are gypsy like me."

"Yes child, I am. But Mortimer Langster doesn't know that." Dorita forced all her will into the words.

Cassandra smiled at the woman. "You are the reason I am here. You have come to take me away."

Dorita laid her hand on Cassandra's shoulder again. "No, child. I am not going to take you away. But, yes I am the reason you are here."

Cassandra opened her mouth to ask, why; but, Dorisa shook her head and with a mild scolding tone said, "Are you going to remove those filthy rags or will I have to? Your bath is getting cold."

Cassandra felt suddenly very awkward as her fingers fumbled with knotted ties.

"Would you like a little help, Dear?"

Cassandra blushed and nodded in an affirmative. "Some of these knots are very old."

Dorisa chuckled and stepped forward holding a small pair of scissors. "You don't want to save these for any special occasion do you?"

Surprised, Cassandra just shook her head in the negative.

"Good." And Dorisa cut the ties holding the rags around the child.

As her clothing fell away in small piles, Cassandra closed her eyes again. She didn't want to see Dorita's, or rather, Dorisa's expressions. But when Dorisa gasped when Cassadra finally stood naked before her, she had to see what was wrong.

"Oh child, you are near starved to death! Tears welled and flowed from the big woman's eyes.

Cassandra lifted her hand and clasped a charm she wore. Her mother had given it to her just before...the same morning when...the last time she'd seen her.

"And you possess your mother's amulet. You obviously have also inherited her ability to read people."

"If you mean I can tell if someone is intent on kindness or harm even when they talk nice, then yes. But, I don't read them as much as I feel people."

"Into the bath with you. You scrub up and I will finish what you can't reach."


~~~~
~~~~


The sun was already up an hour. Jeno snapped the reigns and his four mule team plodded forward. From the looks of the congestion ahead, half of the city was trying to flee through the East Gate. He took some satisfaction in that there was safety in numbers. Once out in the wilds, brigands and other unsavory sorts would likely prey on the lone wagon and stray traveller. He intended to settle himself into the middle of the horde and gain all the protection for himself and his family as he could manage.

Traffic forced him to reign in his team.

"Why we stopping now, Dearest?" Anez poked her head out from under the the canvas cover.

"There's some kind of hold up at the gate, My Peach Blossom."

Anez looked around her husband and witnessed the crowd of wagons, carts, and citizens pushing barrows piled with personal belongings; and, more than a few, carried children.

"Looks like we got a late start, My Peach." Jeno let go a deep sigh as he smiled down at his beloved.

"All the rats fleeing, as the saying goes." Anez shook her head then retreated back under the tarp.

~~~~
~~~~


Anez looked upon her sleeping sister-in-law and sighed. Gus had brought Dorte to them trussed up like a six month old calf and unconscious. He wept to see them go, but instructed Jeno not to loose her bindings until they were at least two days on their journey. He handed over a small vial of a thick liquid to Anez with instructions to give Dorte a spoon full if she made too much trouble. He then kissed his wife and cried like a baby as they left.

Shivers woke with a start to find the street thronged with people and wagons streaming through the early morning towards the nearby city gate. He had managed to avoid being discovered by the city guards the night before and, despite his best efforts to stay awake and keep watch on the Langster gate lodge, exhaustion had overtaken him.

The morning sun had not yet reached into the doorway that had sheltered him in the darkness of the night before. He stretched to remove the kinks in his back from sleeping propped in the cold doorway and peered out at the passing throng. A cacophony of sound assaulted his ears and dust clogged his throat until he could barely breathe. The rats were deserting the sinking ship.

On the far side of the thoroughfare a large dray rumbled by, piled high with furniture, and festooned with household equipment which tinkled like bells as the wheels bounced on the rutted street. A sudden sharp crack and one of the wheel spokes shattered. The dray lurched to one side and stools, chests and sundry boxes tumbled to the ground just outside a double gate in the wall of the Langster estate about twenty yards to the left of the front door.

Shivers darted across the street, skipping between the endless streams of people which continued to pass by. He was intent on helping the driver of the dray to right his cart and salvage the remains of his belongings. He was almost across the road when the double gates opened and the Langster coach appeared, then pulled up sharp as the way was blocked by the damaged dray and its jettisoned cargo.

“What the bloody hell is going on here!” Mortimer’s pointed ears flared red and his face was like thunder. “Guards! Get that wreck out of my way and clear that rubbish off the street. I have urgent business to attend to.”

A group of guards rushed from inside the gate and started to heave the boxes and furniture to one side as Mortimer cursed the unfortunate driver of the dray and directed operations from the open window of his coach. At first, Shivers got stuck in to help the guards and then, in the confusion, he ducked behind the coach horses and slipped in through the double gate, unnoticed, while the guards were busy clearing the debris to make way for the coach.

The gates opened led onto a large square stable yard with an archway at the far end. Shivers checked that there was no one lurking in the yard then ran to its far end. Hugging one wall, he passed to the other end of the archway and was peering out onto a large lawn scattered with shrubbery and small clumps of trees when he noticed a door beneath the arch.

His heart stopped as the handle of the door started to turn and he had barely enough time to dodge round the edge of the wall out of sight before another group of guards rushed out and hurried towards the still blocked gates. His heart started pounding in his chest as he sprinted across the lawn towards one of the dense shrubberies and dived into the relative safety it offered. He settled down under the bushes and carefully parted them so that he could spy out the land. He could see through the arch that there was quite a lot of coming and going in the yard before the coach was able to drive out onto the street and allow Langster to go about his business.

Shivers would bide his time for a little while before he ventured out in search of Cassandra. Now that he was inside the walls he hoped that there would be time enough to search for her when things had settled down a little more in the yard.


Sylena awakened early, wanting to believe that yesterday never happened. She sat up, feeling stiff all over, sleeping on a pallet on the floor was never a happy occasion, but she knew better than to return to her room at Sade's place. Fortunately, her friend, Elenna, allowed her to stay here for the night. How did I get in this mess?

"Your father is not dead. Come to the Great Tree after dark. I wish to speak to you of something. Also there is a hiding place under Younce's table in his office. Bring the leather pouch with you."

And with those words from Elric, as he held a knife to her throat, her fate was sealed. She suspected that Younce would have informed the city guards by now, and she would not be safe on the streets. Was Elric telling the truth of my father? He refused to speak of him last night; although, she pleaded and begged; he promised, "Finish this task, and I will tell you everything."

Sylena closed her eyes and shuddered in memory of what happened next. She screamed when Elric ran his blade over the palm of his left hand then watched in horror and fasination as he filled three vials with his blood. But the part that frightened her most came when he waved his hand over his bleeding palm, and instantly, it was normal.

It was at that moment that she fully realized she had fallen into the hands of a mage. Even after almost ten years, she could hear her father's voice, "If you value your life, never trust a mage."

Her instructions from the mage made no sense, but what other choice did she have? Twaning’s Iron Works, she repeated that name over and over in her mind as if she could ever forget that name. She wondered what the smith would do with the blood even as she wondered what was in the sealed parchment that she was also to give to the smith.

* * *

Younce bounced again on the wagon seat wondering at the wisdom of this idea. The kegs of ale in the wagon bed assured his success, but the wagon road was in terrible condition, punishing his arse mercilessly.

His thoughts kept returning to the goblin he saw in the city dump. He wanted to attribute his sighting to his imagination, but there was no mistaking a goblin with any other creature. He was taking a heavy loss, but he still had his life, which was more than the people of Bansbree would have if that goblin was a scout for the goblin hordes.

A loud cracking sound and the tilting of the wagon to one side brought his slow progress to a dead halt. Wagon wheel? He leapt to the ground and walked quickly around the wagon. He slammed his hand against the side of the wagon.

And his wagon sat in the middle of the rutted road until a wainwright finally came along. When Younce heard the fee for the repair, he wanted to pull his hair out.

By the time, Younce got under way again, it was midday and he had one less barrel of ale.
Once Gustav left the building and her father had pulled the heavy wooden doors closed for the night, Mirabella moved forward. From the corner of her eye she captured Fren’s form coming in the back window opening. He threw a bright smile her way and she waited for him to catch up to her.

“Where were you?” She asked her twin brother who slipped his thicker arm across her shoulders pulling her in for a gruff hug.

“I told him to go out back,” her father told her as he moved back towards them. His raspy voice held in rough whispers. “It is hard to know who to trust these days and although I see Gustav as a friend... I am thinking we need to take care, anything can happen in these days.”

“Yes, father...” Fren and Mirabella whispered back.

“We are three and our three is one.” Their father whispered his voice rough like sandpaper.

“Three is one.” His children whispered back moving to settle into a huddle, their arms crisscrossed over each other’s shoulders and their heads dipped forward to touch in the center.

In silence the stood there. Taking and giving strength to each other.

After a time, Jebodiah was the first to lift his head. Mirabella and Fren followed his lead and gazed into his blazing silver grey eyes.

“What of the Governor’s Call, Father?” Mirabella asked her voice held in barely a whisper.

“It is all right. We will find our way. I am not sure about the Governor’s Call. We will wait, but until then, take care in all you do.”

His children nodded. Fren’s auburn hair falling forward and bouncing over his dark blue eyes as he nodded.

“I need you to watch for a woman to come. She will be bringing things from the Dwarf, Elric.” Their father spoke, his voice lowered even more.

“The mage?” Fren whispered back.

Jebodiah nodded. “Yes, he is a mage.”

“I always thought they were not to be trusted.” Fren grunted.

“This one is different. He has ties that bind us and he is indebted to our family as we are to him.”

“And what is this woman bringing for him?” Mirabella asked.

“Vials of his blood and a parchment. You are to bring her and the items straight to me. Do you understand?”

“Yes, father.” both twins whispered and nodded.

“What will you do?” Fren asked fascinated.

“Ah, you will see my son. You will see. It is of the deepest importance and with it you will learn much.”

“And what about me?” Mirabella asked not wanting to be left out.

“You will learn too, my child. It will take all of us and our hearts as one to develop what needs doing. But for now, I will say no more. For now, we wait and we watch. Our lives must look as normal as any other in this district. Draw no undue attention.” Jebodiah looked into each of his children’s eyes drawing their allegiance with his gaze. Fren’s dark blue gaze and Mirabella’s silver grey gaze held his with unwavering support and he smiled.

“Three as one.” The twins said together and he nodded echoing it back to them.


"Damned to the seventh hell, Ilfilio. Who did this to you?"

"Hamish Diggery--who'd you think?" Ilfillio held a cup between the ends of his two arm stumps. He'd fashioned curved hard leather pads where his hands would be, if he'd still had them.

Mortimer Langster caught himself hiding his own hands under his arm pits. Sheepishly, he pulled them down and took up his glass of sherry. "So why didn't the healer reattach and heal your hands?" Morty grimaced as he silently guessed the answer.

"He did. But, Diggery did something to the wrists just before he seared the wounds. The hands died and fell away after a week."

"So there is no hope to regain your hands?"

"None." Ilfilio brought the cup up to his lips and sipped the sherry. "You still serve the best, Mort." The handless elf smiled.

"Damn!"

"Don't worry old friend, I have six apprentices and as many journeymen, half of which are close to achieving their mastery."

Mortimer felt his face heat. "You think I'm upset because you will never craft again?" Morty placed his sherry glass on the table, stood and walked over to where Ilfilio sat. "There is more to our partnership than commerce, Ilfi."

With a slight hesitation he placed his hand on Ilfi's shoulder. His friend shrugged and took another sip of his sherry.

"At least, I've always considered you a trusted friend." Morty pulled his chair over and sat next to his friend.

"We have no trusted friends in this business. You know that as well as I." Ilfi placed his cup onto the table and sighed relief when it didn't tip over. "However, I too feel closer to you than most, Mort."

Mortimer leaned back into his chair and smiled, while a nod of knowing agreement rocked his head forward and back. "So what brings you here to my offices, Ilfi? How can I help you?"

"Well, due to recent changes," Ilfilio looked down at the leather pads fitted over the end of his arms. "I'm in need of one, maybe two, personal servants. You are more knowledgable than I about these things..."

As his sentence trailed to silence, Ilfilio looked squarely at Mortimer.

Mortimer considered his friend's request, smiled and nodded with emphatic energy. "As it so happens, I've just finished training a young man as a personal. I can have Kynyr change the binding spell from my household to you for a minimal charge. He happens to owe me a favor for keeping the Govenor looking everywhere except where Kynyr is practicing his magics."

"I knew I could come to you. I am willing to pay for the servant as well as the binding." Ilfilio stood and thrust a leather pad toward, Morty. Morty stood with his friend and gripped the proffered substitute hand to clinch the deal. Then Mortimer stopped in mid-pump and grinned at Ilfilio.

"What?"

"Would you take an untrained girl off my hands if I pay for both bindings and gift you both the boy and girl in the process?"

"What is the story behind this girl, that you'd make such an generous offer?" Ilfilio gave Morty a sideways look through slitted eyes.

Mortimer gestured for Ilfilio to sit, then refilled cup and glass with more sherry. "The girl is a piece of business I've inherited due to a mishap with her parents some three years ago. She is gypsy. Her father was a silver smith and her mother a weaver. They set up shop and then refused to pay tribute. Unfortunately, their example was set before I discovered their connection with the Sapphire Dragon Guild."

Ilfilio stopped his cup half way to his lips and gawped at Mortimer. "You had members of the S.D.G. killed?"

"At the time, I had no clue they were connected. I only recently found this out."

"And you are still breathing?"

Mortimer nodded his head slowly. "My life is pardoned if I make restitution by finding and rehabilitating the gypsies' daughter. Well, I found her and she is at my home as we speak.

"And just what am I supposed to do with this gypsy girl?"

"Nothing was said how I was to rehabilitate the child. I will gladly pay for her board if you take her on as an apprentice. Her father was a gifted jeweler, she may have inherited some of his talents."

Ilfilio set the cup of sherry down and considered Morty's offer. He shook his head in the negative and Morty visibly slumped in his chair.

"Just how old is the boy and the girl?"

"Eddy is nine years, will turn ten after the atumnal festival. The girl is thirteen."

"I have no accomodations for a pubescent female, I will need a nurse for her and possibly for the boy, too. Children are a little out of my experience."

Mortimer straightened up in his chair. He lifted his glass of sherry and took a gulp. "It just so happens I have a servant who would make the perfect nurse for both children. She is a healer in her own right, too."

Ilfillio lifted his cup and said, "Salute," before taking a drink.

Mortimer drank to seal the deal.

~~~~
~~~~

Cassandra woke under clean warm blankets and in a feather-down bed. It hadn't been a dream, then. She was a guest in Morimer Langster's home. But, the Elf didn't have any endearing feelings toward her as far as she could tell from their meeting last evening. Dorisa was another matter. She was connected to this woman somehow. Maybe a blood relation, maybe something else. Whatever the tie binding them, she could trust Dorisa to protect her.

Cassandra slid out from under the warmth of the covers and tip toed to the only door in the small bedchamber. It was locked. So, she was a prisoner, more tha a guest. She looked up at the only window in the room well above her head and barred. Bird song drifted down upon the sunbeams. And a touch of something familiar tingled the hairs along her arms.

Cassandra stepped into the sunlight and closed her eyes. Shivers? Was he really out their? How'd he find her? Why did he risk himself by coming here? Cassandra opened her eyes and pounded on the door. Minutes later it opened and Dorisa stood before her with clean clothing. She held up under garments and a frock. No way. Not a frock.

The child shook her head no, and stepped away from the round nurse. "I have a friend who needs help."

Dorisa clucked her tongue at Cassandra then frowned at her. "And, who might this friend be?"

"His name is Shivers, I don't think he knows any other name."

"So what is he to us? Right now, you need to be concern..."

"He's outside, near the house. Please, I would die if he got hurt on my account." Cassandra tried to slip passed Dorisa, but the woman was too quick and caught her arm in a strong grip.

"Oh no you don't. You put these on. I will go out and tell the young man you request his audience." She scowled at Cassandra. "But, first you get decent. No charge of mine is going to converse with a boy half undressed."

"But he..."

"Get, dressed." Dorisa stepped out of the room closing and bolting the door behind her.


Cassandra chewed her bottom lip then with disgusted resignation picked up the under garments and started putting them on. "Of all the unfair...I hate dresses!"
Shivers woke with a start, fighting with the under-branches of his sheltering shrubbery. He remembered where he was, stopped fighting imaginary foes and settled back down. He peered out from the bushes, fearful of discovery. No one seemed to have noticed the feverish activity in the patch of greenery.

His mind was filled with the vivid dream of his missing friend which had awakened him. The girl in the dream was not a Cassandra he recognised. She was sitting on a soft bed covered with a clean, embroidered bedspread. He could almost feel the softness of the fine muslin tunic she was wearing. Her unruly mop of unkempt dirty brown hair was transformed into a tousled cap of curls, burnished bronze by the sunlight streaming into the room from a high window.

An old servant woman was standing by the bed holding a pretty blue dress sprigged with embroidered daisies. Shivers felt a strong feeling of connection between the old woman and the girl. He was used to these odd feelings when he was thinking about Cassandra. He often seemed to know how she felt and when she was about to appear. He had the distinct impression that, for the moment she was in no real danger. He had learnt from experience to trust these feelings, where his friend was concerned. She must be in the house somewhere! I must try and find her!

He edged forward to scout out the land. There was a fair bit of coming and going as the servants went about their early morning chores. Shivers watched for the opportunity to sneak a little closer to look for a way into the house. It wasn’t too long before the activity eased off and he sprinted across the grass to secrete himself in a clump of bushes by one of the minor doors near the archway. He barely had time to duck behind them before he heard the door open and soft footsteps descended the steps onto the gravel of the path.

“You needn’t skulk in them bushes, young man. I knows you’re there.” Shiver’s jaw dropped at the whisper of the words in his head. “Come on out of there! There’s nobody here but me, and I mean you no harm.” He felt the words rather than heard them, almost like he did with Cassandra. He checked around then climbed sheepishly from the bushes, brushing leaves and twigs from his clothes as he stood to his full height.

“Quickly! Inside before somebody sees us. Cassandra has sent me to fetch you to her. She is waiting for you in her room.” Shivers hesitated for only a moment. He had a good feeling about this old woman. She disappeared inside the door and he followed her. They were in a narrow hallway with a flight of stairs leading to the floor above. The old woman was already halfway up the stairs. She turned and beckoned to him to follow, her finger to her lips to bid him to keep silent.

With a final look round, he bounded up the stairs after her. She was surprisingly nimble for an old woman and he had a difficult time keeping up with her as they ascended two flights of rickety back stairs and stopped before a plain door. The old woman went inside and he followed her. It was a small room with a sink in one corner and stacks of clothes on a shelf beside it.

“Clean yourself up a bit, before I take you in to the young lady.” Shivers made to protest. “And put on those clothes, or we will both be for the chop.” She thrust a clean tunic and a pair of breeches towards him. “The other servants will be able to smell you a mile off in them rags!” Her nose wrinkled with distaste.

“I’ll be back shortly, after I tell Cassandra that I have found you.” He took the clothes from her. As she turned on her heel and left the room, he heard the sound of a key in the lock before her footsteps faded away. Resigned, he scooped some water from a bucket into the sink, removed his filthy clothes and did as he had been asked. The clean clothes were worn but serviceable and fitted him quite well. He scratched at the unfamiliar feel of clean cotton and settled to wait for the return of the old servant, hoping that his instincts had not betrayed him. Ten minutes later he heard the key in the lock and she re-entered.

“Hmm…. I suppose you’ll have to do!” She turned him round and round in the small space, inspecting him. “You’ll not stand out from the rest of the servants, now, but keep your wits about you!” She went back out of the room and Shivers followed her up another short flight of stairs, standing behind her as she opened a door at the top of them.

The coast was clear. They walked along the corridor and the old woman stopped at one of the doors and unlocked it with a key from a chain at her waist. As they were about to enter, a man appeared round a corner in the corridor. He strode towards them with a quizzical look on his face.
By the time Sylena reached Twaning's Iron Works, her nerves were a wreck. She lost track of how many times she dodged into a dark corner or shadow to avoid a city patrol.

She pressed her arm against the leather pouch at her side. She would soon be rid of this, and then--

A creaking of the back door to the smithy made her heart leap. The emergence of a young man with auburn hair stopped her dead in her tracks. His piercing dark blue eyes settled on her.

"Ah . . . is this Twaning's?"

He nodded his head. "Go down the alley and turn right. The entrance is there."

She reached her hand toward the door handle. "Since I'm already here. . . ."

He smiled. "Don't tell me; let me guess. Your name is Sylena."

She took a step backward. "Ah . . . no . . . I'm Drucia."

His eyes seemed to laugh at her. "It's good that my father is the smith, and we are expecting you; since, obviously, you never learned to lie well."

Sylena gave him her best furious face and stamped her foot at him, but he laughed some more then opened the door for her. "Come."

She wrinkled her nose as soon as she entered. There was no mistaking the coal smell. She lifted her hands to her ears at the sound of hammering. She stared at the young man. "How can you bear that terrible sound?"

"You get used to it after a while."

"Never."

She followed a narrow path between crates on both sides of the room and suddenly emerged into a wide room. The young man took her hand and said, "This way."

She snatched her hand back as if struck by a viper. The man's grin made her stomach feel as if it was full of butterflies. "Do you have a name?" she asked.

"You can call me Fren."

"I don't know you well enough to call you, Friend."

"F R E N, Fren."

"Well, it is hard to hear in here you know."

Sylena was startled when Fren whistled loudly. She stared at him sharply. I hope he's not whistling at me.

The hammering stopped, and Fren led her past a couple of large barrels cut in half with some kind of liquid in them. The large man at the anvil turned. She gaped at his bare bulging arms and thick heavy chest, which was covered by a leather apron with dark, black splotches on it. He wore his black hair short, and he didn't have a beard.

"Father, this is Sylena."

The smith stepped forward; his silver grey eyes smiled at her as he gripped her hand gently. "Welcome, I'm Jebodiah. I believe you have something for me."

"Yes." Sylena lifted the strap of the leather pouch over her head and opened it. She removed a small leather bag and handed it to Jebodiah. "The vials of blood are in this small bag." She handed him a sealed, rolled parchment. "There is also a bag of coins for you, which I feared to bring, but I can give you their exact location."

He waved his hand. "We'll speak of that in a moment. First, I want to take a look at the parchment." He pulled a knife from a sheath at his hip and slit the seal. He opened the parchment and read, then he looked up. "You are wearing a moonstone?"

Sylena stared at Jebodiah in disbelief. No one knew of the necklace given to her by her mother before she died. "I . . . I--"

"Do you know what it is?" he demanded in a loud voice.

"Father--"

"Quiet Fren! I'm awaiting your answer, Sylena."

"My mother refused to speak of it, saying, 'It was not the right time'."

"It identifies you as belonging to the Sapphire Dragon Guild. You can't remove it can you?"

Sylena shook her head. "My mother put it around my neck. I've never been able to take it off."

"Fren, take Sylena to the house and find a place for her. She will be staying with us for now."

"Wait, what is this necklace all about?"

"Elric will tell you when he returns?"

"I can't stay here," she protested.

"Elric has commanded me to protect you. You will be safe here."

"Can I see the parchment?" Sylena asked.

Jebodiah smiled and handed it to her.

She read the first line: Να είναι έτοιμο από την τρίτη ώρα της νύχτας για να λάβετε το βαγόνι, then handed it back. "Do you even know what this says?"

"Of course," Jebodiah answered, "The first line is: 'Be ready by the third hour of the night to receive the wagon'."

Sylena sighed and looked at Fren. "Why are you smirking?"

"Oh, I wasn't smirking that was a crooked smile."

"You don't lie very well either, you know," she snapped back.
Sylena narrowed her eyes at him. “How old are you anyway?” Through all his coal swiped dirt and grime it was hard to tell.

Fren drew himself up to his full height and raised a bow at her. She could have sworn he even flexed his muscles, but she bit down on her lip to keep from laughing at him.

“Eighteen.” He said proudly.

There was a snort behind her and Sylena whirred around to see a clear faced girl behind her. The girl winked at her.

“Don’t pay him any mind. That is a fat lie.” The girl said with her silvery blue eyes alight. “He’s only seventeen, like me. It will be another six months before we see that age.”

Sylena took in the same shade of auburn hair and although the girl looked much smaller than the boy there was definitely a family resemblance.

“Twins...” she asked letting her voice trail off as she looked back and forth between the two of them.

“Yeah, and I never been so sad to know her...” The boy grumbled.

The girl gave a delighted laugh then held her hand forward in greeting. “I am Mirabella.”
“Mirabella.” Sylena repeated shaking the girl’s hand. She began to feel some of her tension slip away. This girl looked harmless enough and a glance towards the father eased her mind as well. He looked on with proud delight mingled with concern.

“You returned... Didn’t Zelda have a problem with you leaving the bakery?’ Her father asked moving over towards them.

“No... I saw this woman making her way down the street. She didn’t strike me as overly comfortable with being here and I was hoping to get here before Fren got a hold of her and added more discomfort to her already frayed nerves.”

“I did not.” Fren protested.

The girl raised her brows at him. “You’re doubtin’ me, now?”

A glance at Fren let Sylena see him shake his head and glance at the floor. She could not help but smile. This wee girl had power, not just to read feelings, but to be the woman of her household. Sylena relaxed a little more still.

“I’ll take her up and get her comfortable. If we’re to be protecting you, my room with me is the place you’ll be. I want to see that Moonstone anyway. I want to know more about this Sapphire Dragon Guild.”

“Yes, good. We’ll have a chance to talk at dinner. We have to keep business as usual and I am seeing some men heading this way... upstairs, ladies and take care to be quiet. Mirabella will keep her curiosities to herself until we can all talk. As soon as Sylena is settled, I would advise you to head back to the bakery. We do not want Zelda Rainer asking questions about why you left.” Her father gave her a pointed stare. Silver clashed with silver, but held as Mirabella nodded her acquiesce.

“With all the noise down her I doubt we will be heard anyway.” Sylena managed to say before Jebodiah moved back to his work and dropped his great hammer onto the anvil. Fren moved to his position by the bellows and began working the coals to the right temperature. He glanced back at the girls one last time.

“This way. You will get used to it.” Mirabella reached for her hand and Sylena gave it glancing back at Fren who was smirking again.

“Why does he do that?” She asked leaning in towards the girl.

Mirabella snickered. “I figure he fancies you and he is not so sure what to do with his face... ugly mug, that it is. Never you mind him.”

Sylena could not help but laugh then, her fears eased and she let the girl lead her up the stairs in the back of the shop. Maybe this was not going to be so bad after all.
Cassandra stood at rigid attention on the other side of her locked door with the palm of her left hand pressed against the solid oak wood. Two powerful forces (one familiar, the other not) confronted each other. Her fingertips were numbed by an intense vibrating tension layered over an underlying residual resentment from the wood itself. A murmur of voices teased her ears. She pressed her left ear against the wood; but, she still couldn't make out any of the spoken words. Cassandra felt the vibration of assertion, first on one side then countered on the otherside.

The forces were equal in strength. Demand, coniving and manipulation, exerted from both sides nullified each other. The forces were balanced against the other, so nothing was gained nor lost with the contact.

Cassandra's frustration grew into urgency; she needed to see what was happening. She sensed surprise followed by respect from both forces. The murmuring voices silenced and the unfamiliar force moved away. Cassandra stepped back from the door and wiped her sweaty palms down the front of her skirt. She mentally urged Dorita/Dorisa to hurry. She heard the key turn and leaned a bit to get a quicker look behind the door. Her eyes settled on Shivers. She knew who he was, immediately; yet, almost didn't recognize the clean and freckled face boy. He cleaned up rather nicely.

Dorisa pushed herself and Shivers into the small room and closed the door. The expression of her face told Cassandra nothing, but she felt the urgency of decision pressing outward from the woman.

"We need to plan how to leave this house." As she spoke, she turned Cassandra around and gave her a thorough looking over. "Our host is beset by forces of which he isn't yet aware. He thinks that by bringing you into his house, he has averted a pending and ill favored destiny."

"I don't understand." Cassandra turned her head so she looked at the old nurse as she was spun around.

"Quickly now, say your words of farewell to each other. The boy is in great danger here and if Lord Langster finds him here uninvited, there is nothing you or I can do to save him."

Cassandra felt a moment of dizziness as the truth to Dorisa's warning hit her with full force.

Shivers was by her side in an instant with her hand in his. She steadied in an instant and her mind cleared into focused clarity.

"Who was the man in the hall?"

Dorisa frowned. "He is someone we need to avoid in the future. This time, he acted as a messenger."

"Don't send me away. You will need me."

Both Dorisa and Cassandra looked down at Shivers.

"First off, make your plans for when everyone is asleep. The guards out in the main grounds are actually very careless. There won't be a moon until after three bells and the guards are drowsy and inattentive after midnight. That is a three hour window to make your escape. The city guard patrols go by a half hour after midnight and again just after moon rise." Shivers paused and took in a deep breath.

Cassandra and Dorisa looked at each other and smiled.

"Does he always go on like that?"

"Only when he knows he is right."

Shivers looked first at Dorisa and then at Cassandra.


~~~
~~~


Mortimer placed his empty glass on the table and took Ilfilio's empty cup. "I will contact Kynyr and have him come to the house tomorrow morning. Can you wait that long?"

Ilfilio laughed. Mortimer grinned.

"What time do you wish me to stop by in the morning?"

"I think we can have the exchange a little after eight in the morning. Although, Breakfast is at six, if you wish to dine with me. It will give you an opportunity to see Eddy's training in action and get a feel for the girl."

"Okay, I will plan on an early breakfast then."

Ilfilio left Mortimer's offices not long after. Mortimer was then swamped with business meetings. It was late afternoon when he finally boarded his carriage and returned to his house for the rest of the evening.

Dorisa thought for several moments.

“We must escape tonight. I think our host has immediate plans for Cassandra which will put her in danger.” The eyes of the two youngsters widened to round saucers. “You have done well, young Shivers. With what you have learnt, we will make our move after the house has retired tonight.” The two nodded their assent.

“We must not arouse anyone’s suspicions. The master has entrusted me with the immediate care of Cassandra.” Shivers moved to place a comforting arm around the shoulders of a concerned looking Cassandra. “I can go about my business as usual. The servants will be expecting me to keep Cassandra secure, so you should both be safe as long as you stay locked in this room.” Shivers made to protest, then thought better of it. He would be too conspicuous and might be challenged if he moved about the house.

“You are right, Mistress Dorisa. There is no time to delay. The hour is already past two bells and there is much to do.” He turned to Cassandra. “The quicker we can get away from here, Cassandra, the better. We must make a list of all we will need. Dorisa can bring it to us and when the house is quiet we will make our escape.”

“I think you are both right. I have a sense of foreboding about this place. And I know that Langster was involved in the death of my parents.” There was a momentary sadness in Cassandra’s eyes, then she drew her shoulders back in determination. “Have you a plan, Dorisa?”

“You two must not make any noise that would attract attention while I am gone. Tonight we must ALL make our escape!” With this, Dorisa turned and left the room, locking the door behind her.

All through the afternoon Dorisa came and went. She brought them a tray with some food and drink on it and three stout knapsacks. Shivers’ personal belongings appeared, rescued from his discarded clothes of the morning. He set about sharpening his dagger and helped Cassandra pack the knapsacks with the items that Dorisa kept bringing to the room.

At one stage, the two young people stopped what they were doing as footsteps approached the door and someone rattled the door handle several times before giving up and moving away again. They breathed a sigh of relief and recounted the incident to Dorisa when she next appeared. She resolved to be even more careful as she went about her self-appointed task.

Mortimer returned home in the early evening and sent for Dorisa to enquire after the welfare of their ‘guest’. Satisfied with her report, he bade her have Cassandra made ready and brought to his chambers at 6.30 am the next morning for an early breakfast, then dismissed the servant woman. He had had a trying day, so ordered his dinner to be brought to his private quarters and retired for the evening. He smiled to himself as he tucked into his dinner and quaffed the excellent wine that the steward had brought from the cellar, pleased that he would soon be rid of the gypsy girl who had turned out to be such thorn in his side.

Dorisa made her way back the room and bustled in, locking the door behind her. Cassandra and Shivers were playing chequers at the table and stopped as she leant back against the door. They were both dressed in the sturdy plain clothes that she had brought them earlier.

“I was right! The master has asked me to bring Cassandra to his quarters at 6.30 am for breakfast tomorrow.” The two young people sprang to their feet and went to check the knapsacks. “I will go and bring more provisions from the kitchen and then check on his Lordship to make sure that he has settled for the night. He has taken a fair bit of wine so should sleep soundly.” Dorisa had brought several cloaks with her and she threw them over the back of one of the chairs. “Dress warmly and be ready to leave as soon as the coast is clear.”

As the midnight chimes died away they heard the key turn in the lock and Dorisa entered the room once more, dressed in a dark cloak. They lost no time in gathering their belongings. Dorisa checked the corridor outside and the three fugitives crossed the hall and went through the door to the back stairs. The house was still and silent as they made their way down the stairs, pausing on each landing to listen for any disturbance.

As they reached the outer door, Dorisa motioned to them to hold back and they heard two men’s voices pass by, punctuated by jovial laughter. They waited until the voices died away in the distance and then Shivers took the lead, heading along the path, hoping that no-one would hear the crunch of the gravel. They reached the safety of the archway and were relieved at the relative silence of the paving stones there.

Hugging the shadows along the walls they tiptoed around the courtyard towards the double gates where Shivers had entered the day before. The gates were dark and deserted. They could hear the sound of men’s voices, intermittent laughter and singing as they crept past the room at the corner near the front door, but no-one came into the courtyard. They paused by the double gates and Dorisa took a large key from a pocket in her cloak and unlocked a low door in one of the gates. With a last look around the courtyard, all three stooped and stepped through the small opening into the shadows of the outer gateway. Cassandra and Shivers stood waiting until Dorisa had relocked the door.

We must flee the city as soon as possible. Shivers started at the words which formed in his head.

“This is the safest route to the nearest gate.” He pointed to the road which had been thronged with wagons and people the day before. “The City Guard will be by here soon, so we must find somewhere to hide until they pass, then make haste.” They headed for one of the shadowy laneways along the road and turned into it, looking for a likely spot to hide. “We must be as far away from here as we can before Lord Langster discovers we are gone.” They ducked into a dark alleyway just as they heard the sound of the City Guard approaching.

Their thoughts boiled with turmoil as they waited. The beat of marching feet rose to a crescendo then faded into the night. They waited a few more minutes, before their breath hissed out in relief. The Gods were with them so far. Keeping to the shadows, they headed for the City Gate, hoping that they would be far away by daybreak.
Klarg's wagon sat on a knoll just outside of the Querlin mine. He had arrived fifteen minutes before the appointed time. Some hay was helping the mules to focus on something other than moving. He was nervous not just for leaving the dwarf mines surreptitiously, but also he was not overjoyed to be a part of anything associated with magic.

Elric's message left him no choice. He didn't even want to think about his cargo. He shuddered to think of what might happen if he was caught. He looked up at the stars spread across the sky like a blanket. Where was a falling star to wish upon when you needed one?

The wagon shook a little bit, and the mules brayed in protest. The sight of the alley way with structures all around gave proof of Elric's success with the spell.

A creaking of a door opening was an encouraging sound. He looked to see a man who from his size must be the smith. The smith motioned with his hands, directing where to back up the wagon. As soon as it was in place, Klarg leapt down from the wagon seat and took a bag of feed from the wagon bed, spreading some on the ground for the mules.

Klarg pulled a pin on the wagon bed and it tilted, delivering its load to the area indicated by the smith. Only a large crate remained on the wagon bed. The smith and Klarg removed the crate.

A few minutes later, Klarg was more than happy to be on his wagon and driving away from the smithy.

* * *

Jebodiah would begin the long process of smelting the ore in the morning. He had created many swords in his years as a smith, but this one would be one of a kind. He looked at the crate setting against the wall, remembering Elric's instructions on the parchment.

Do not open the crate. Once the impurities are removed from the ore place the crate into the molten ore. The sword crafted from this metal will be very light weight, but no other sword will be able to stand before it. When the sword is ready, hire a sword master, and Sylena's training will begin.

* * *

It was hard to sleep in a strange place. Sylena slipped from her bed in the dead of night and crept slowly, feeling her way through the dark. Low voices pulled her toward the smithy.

From a dark corner, she watched Jebodiah and a dwarf carry a large crate and deposit it against a wall. She wondered why the smith was receiving a shipment of ore so late at night. Furthermore, the drawbridge to enter Bansbree would be up at this time of night. Her questions caused her  curiosityto grow.

Jebodiah closed and secured the smithy door after the dwarf pulled away with the wagon. He left the smithy. Sylena waited. She wondered what might be in the crate. She crept toward the wall where it was located. She felt her way along in the dark.

Finally, she found the crate. She ran her hands over the wood. It was so smooth. She could not find any cracks or joins. It felt like a solid piece with no opening. But that is not possible.

She remembered seeing large hammers along the wall on the opposite side of the smithy; except in the dark, she would not find her way across to the other side. Something compelled her to follow the wall, feeling her way around. It seemed to take a long while to reach the other side. She lifted a hammer and dropped it with a loud craaack on the floor. How could it be so heavy?

She lifted the hammer with both hands and waddled back along the wall. Her curiosity pulled her along. She saw a glowing light going before her and gasped, then she noticed that the light emanated from the moonstore on her necklace. Now she felt a shaft of fear. The moonstone had never glowed before.

By the time she reached the crate, her hands ached, and her arms felt like a lead weight. She moved her hands down on the handle and hefted the hammer, crashing it onto the crate with a thunk. She rested her hands on the hammer handle for a moment. "I will get this thing open." She lifted the hammer again.
“What are you doing?”

Sylena had not even heard the twins approach. She whirled around at the sound of Fren’s voice. He stood staring at her with his hair tossled upwards from sleep. In his hand he held up a lantern. The dim glow flickered across the twins faces. He leaned against counter beside him. Mirabella peered over his shoulder trying to stifle a giggle.

“I couldn’t sleep…” she began trying to move in front of the hammer and hide what she was really up to.

Fren laughed, “you couldn’t sleep so you thought you would wake the rest of us, as well.”

“I thought I was being quiet.”

Fren’s raised a brow and leaned forward to see if she was alright. The smirk turning up his lips.

“What? Why are you looking at me like that?”

“Just seeing if you are crazy or if you just think we are.”

“I… I… I…” she began stumbling over her tongue.

“We thought we were being robbed.” He said glumly.

“I am sorry…”

“Oh my…” Mirabella said breathlessly pushing past her brother. “your moonstone is glowing.”

Sylena reached up to touch it. It was warm, but not hot.

“Has it ever done that before?”

“No.” Sylena whispered.

“I wonder why?” Mirabella moved closer and asked, “can I touch it?”

Sylena nodded.

“What are you trying to do anyway?” Fren asked moving forward and grabbing the hammer away from her. He hefted it like it weighed nothing.

“I was curious what was in the crate.” She whispered.

“Have you never heard that curiosity killed the cat?”

“Well I…” she let the thought go and glared at him instead.

“Father knows what he is doing, Sylena.” Mirabella said as she fingered the moonstone.

“He said he would tell us all in the morning. I dare say, we don’t damage the crate.” He smoothed his hand over the side of it. It seemed to pulse as the three of them stared at it.

“But wouldn’t you like to know what it is?” she leaned in to whisper and he shook his head.

“All in good time…”

“What are you three doing down here?” rasped Jebodiah as he made his way over to the group.

“We were curious about the crate.” Fren said simply.

Sylena looked over at him and wondered why he did not simply tell the truth – that it was her and only her that had been trying to open it.

“Curiosity is a deadly thing… especially with things you do not understand. The crate must sit, untouched until I am ready for it. Any tampering with it will deplete its power. And I am thinking we are going to need all its power.” He glanced at each of them to make sure they understood his demand. “When I craft it you will all be here. I swear that to you. For now I need you all to return to your beds. We will need our sleep. Am I clear?”

“Yes, Father.” The twins intoned and bowed their heads.

Jebodiah swizzled his gaze to Sylena. “I need your word as well, my dear. For it is you who will wield it.”

“Wield it?” Her voice came out in a strangled gasp. “But I know nothing of fighting…”

“Ah, but you will.”

Terror tripped along her spine. Mirabella’s hands slipped onto her shoulders and seemed to melt the terror. She glanced back at her.

“We must all follow our destiny, Sylena. Yours is to be here with us. Let’s go back to our room.”

Mirabella’s voice seemed to strip the fears from her and the tension fell away.

She looked back at Jebodiah and feeling stronger nodded to him.

He smiled and reached to pat her hand.

Sylena was surrounded by their aura of protection as she looked to each one. They all smiled reassuringly and she could not help but smile back. Something about this family drew her in, comforted her in a way she had not experienced in a very long time.

They moved as one back towards the stairs and climbed up to find sleep awaiting them.


Jeno smiled and nodded friendly acknowledgment towards the weaver walking by his wagon with a pair of full water buckets dangling from the yoke upon his shoulders. Jeno then looked nervously toward his wagon. At the moment it was quiet and the wagon was still. Little Erta looked at her father with a serious expression. "Does not Aunt Dorte wish to be away from the war?"

Her older brother, Rothfram, said in his best matter of fact voice, "Of course not, stupid. If Aunt Dorte had wanted to come along, Uncle Gus wouldn't have had to tie her up."

"Hush and eat your dinner. Your Aunt Dorte will come around to being with us in a day or so." Jeno smiled his best 'Dad knows all' smile.

"Will you keep her all tied up, Daddy?" Jeno's smile faltered only slightly with the direct simplicity of his third child's question.

"Maybe, for a little longer, Sahima. But only until your aunt feels better about staying with us.

"I want mommy." Jeno frowned at his youngest daughter and looked toward the wagon.

"Your momy is busy feeding your aunt right now. She will be done in a little while."

"Do we have to eat this, Daddy?" Sahima looked inside her bowl and scowled.

"Sorry kids, if you want dinner, barley soup is what we have. There won't be anything else until tomorrow morning." Jeno looked up from the four children sitting around the small cooking fire. Anez smiled down at her husband with tired and worried eyes.

"Dorte is sleeping again. I think she will be quiet until after we pack up and leave in the morning." Anez picked up a bowel and filled it with the watery barley soup. As she sat down, little Teria scooted into her lap and laid her head against her mommy's shoulder.

"She was calling for you just a bit ago, Sweet Cakes." Jeno smiled at the picture of his family around the fire. Roth, the oldest was seven and quite the responsible little man. Erta was six and at that stage where she was noticing, everything. Sahima followed at four and then there was Teria at nearly three years. But his wife was showing the signs of being with child--again. She had told him she was having another baby and she was worried about the news of war. Jeno, felt the pressures of such a large family and him with no truly lucrative trade skills...But, as he looked at his wife and children he thought he'd burst with pride. The girls were dark like their mother and Rothfram was the spitten image of him, except for his green eyes, which neither he nor Anez had. He remembered his paternal grandfather had green eyes, and Anez's mother had mercurial hazel eyes. Jeno was very proud of his son's good looks and his green eyes promised to make him a dashing young man.

"Finish up your soup, children, and then it's off to bed." Anez looked down at the already sleeping Teria. and shook her head smiling. Jeno stood and walked around the fire. He lifted his youngest, who moaned with the transfer from mother to father; but, didn't wake.

Within a half hour Jeno and Anez were laying next to each other in their bedroll under the wagon. Jeno held his wife close to his left side and had his sword, bow and quiver of arrows laying at the right--ready for any surprises. But, he wasn't really worried about surprises as he'd placed his wagon in the center circle with other families. The out lying circle of wagons were more equipped with fighting men so if there was trouble the inner circle would have plenty of warning to get to arms.

"Jen."

"Yes, Dear."

"I'm worried about Dorte."

"She will come around. Just give her a couple more days." Jeno scraped his lower lip with his teeth.

"I'm not so sure, My Dearest." Anez's left hand moved and stroked his bare chest.

Jeno took her hand and brought it up to his lips. "I know, My Sweets, I'm worried about her too." Jeno shifted and kissed the top of his wife's head. "We need our sleep, Sweet Cakes. Tomorrow we need to get an early start and it promises to be a long day of travel in the wilds."

Anez's soft steady breathing was what finally lulled Jeno to sleep. His dreams were disjointed and fitful, however, and he woke grudgingly the next morning.

~~~
~~~


Gustav left the Twanings Metal Works with a crooked smile. Damn! It felt good not having to worry about Dorte. He felt care free and light footed as he entered the Broken Dagger Inn. The place was quiet and a drudge was mopping around the tables as he entered. He headed straight for the bar and sat on a tall stool there. The drudge, she was probably close to ten years, went into the back room. The barkeep came out of the back wiping his hands on a dingy towel. "What you want Bub?"

"A pint of stout will do for now. Pretty quiet in here." Gus pulled four coppers from his change pocket and dropped them on the bar top.

"Yea, most proper folks have left the city the last couple days. Been pretty slow." The barkeep stepped over to a tapped keg and twisted the spout filling a pewter mug with expert precision. "But, it's also pretty early. Things will pick up later this evening."

Gus took a long drink from his pint. When he sat the mug back on the bar it was half full. "Damn! I been waiting for five years for that."

"You said five years, Friend?" The barkeep looked at Gus and smiled.

"Yup, got married and haven't had a drop of the ol' brew since." Gus tipped the pint and emptied it.

"Steady there, Friend. You'll get pissed drinking like that." The tender took the mug from Gus and refilled it. "What happened to your wife that you come in here to quench a thirst?"

Gus took the pint mug from the tender and took a short drink. "Sent her off with me brother. Damn nice to have her away."

"You don't say?"

"Yup, she been the worst millstone around me neck for the last three years now. Took threat of war and the Gov'ner's call to get me free of her." Gus cracked a grin from ear to ear. "Gotta love the times."

The barkeep scratched behind his ear and shook his head.

Gus spent the rest of the afternoon at the Broken Dagger. He was a silver and twelve copper sovereigns poorer, but when he staggered out into the street he felt the money well spent. The sun was falling into it's western bed when Gus decided where he was going next. He needed to see if Alayos was available for the night. Gus headed for the Northwestern quarter of Bansbree. His crooked grin settled over his face as if it were a permanent fixture. My dear friend Alayos.


By the time Gus stood in front of the apartments, he'd sobered a bit, and had pissed at least a gallon. Looking right and left, he took a breath and pulled open the door leading to a foyer. A little man sitting behind a cage window looked up from his books, quill tip resting on the rim of an ink bottle. "The house ain't up yet, Bub. Buisness won't start for another three hours."

"Not here for business...Lookin' for Alayos." The little man scowled at Gus.

"He's a friend, go and tell him Gustav asks an audience."

"He ain't here. Moved out a year ago." The little man pulled his quill over the scroll and scratched some lines into a neat column.

"He moved?" Gus swayed where he stood.

"Yea, Bub. Alayos is gone, moved, not here."

Gus glared at the man who sat safely behind the protection of the barred cage. "What happened to this place? It never needed iron protection before."

"Nothing happened, just safer this way."

"Did he say where he was off to?" Gus stepped toward the window.

"Who? Oh Alayos. No he didn't say."

Gus scowled at the little man but left without another word. It was strange that Alayos would just up and leave. He looked around the neighborhood and saw how run down the building fronts had become. There was litter in the once well kempt street. As he walked south along the western wall, he became aware that the streets had an unsavory atmosphere about them after dark. He was approaching the western gate, when he spied the suspicious movements of three people skirting the shadows. The tower struck twice on the large brass chimes as Gus leaned against an oil street lamp and watched what appeared to be a boy, a girl and an older woman. The woman followed the boy's lead but herded both children as if she were a hen sheltering them under her wings as they ran from one shadow to the next. The gate was closed for the night, so the trio wouldn't get much further. Gus wondered why humans, especially two children and a woman, would wish to leave by the west gate across the Sidhelein river and into the Elvish domains? It didn't make any sense. Not with war looming.

Gus wasn't the type to ponder such thoughts for long; however, and within a couple more hours of southern walking, he found himself before a wrought iron gate with a modest garden and walkway leading to a small cottage. His crooked smile returned to his tired features. It was late, well past three in the morning, closer to four a.m. He lifted the gate latch and pushed. The gate clattered and squeaked, but Gus didn't seem to notice. He closed the gate after stepping onto the cobblestone walkway. In a few minutes he was sprawled out on the wooden bench about a third of the way to the cottage. Minna was asleep and he wouldn't wake her. In the distance he heard the tower strike four. It would be nice to see little Keldan again. He will be two at mid summer. Gus closed his eyes and hoped Minna wouldn't be too angry with him for being away for nearly a week. He had good news, Dorte was no longer in the city. They could be together...now.

~~~
~~~


Cassandra, Shivers and Dorita were nearly at the western gate. Cassandra was tired and stumbled as they dashed toward the shadow of a low building with shrubs along its wall.

"It's okay Cass, we will rest here and wait for the gate to open." Shivers reached and touched the back of her hand. Instantly, she felt much better. Her knees didn't feel as if they would buckle out from under her at any minute.

Dorita had carried a satchel all the way from Mortimer's house, now she took out two blankets and wrapped Shivers and Cassandra with them. "You two get comfortable and get some sleep. I will sit up and keep watch."

"Just around dawn the guard changes at the gate. There might be questions." Shivers looked at Dorita as he spoke.

"I have a cousin about two days from Bansbree, she will lodge us until Mortimer is no longer interested in our abrupt departure." Dorita looked at Shivers and added. "I will be claiming the both of you as my children. You are Cassidi Lonas and you are Giles Lonas and when asked I am your mother, Dorita Lonas, and we travel to see our cousin Meleda Poulos.

"You expect a long stay at your cousins?" Cassandra nestled into the blanket.

"About a week, maybe eight days, but not much longer than that I think. Mortimer will have more drastic concerns to settle in less than a week's time."

Shivers looked quizzically up at Dorita. "The man in the hall, he has something to do with Mortimer's new troubles, doesn't he?"

Dorita smiled appreciatively at Shivers. "Yes, Lord Langster has gained the attention of the Obsidian Dragon Co-operatives. I think his monopoly over the Bansbree underworld has brought about an earlier reconning than he has expected."

Shiver's whistled through his teeth and shook his head.

"Exactly." Dorita smiled.

"The man you sparred with near my door is with the ODC?" Cassandra whispered and looked around to make sure no one was listening.

"We didn't spar, Cassidi, we only talked." Dorita nodded confirming the man was indeed ODC connected.

"But, I felt..."

Dorita interrupted with a parental tone of finality. "Get some sleep. We can talk more after we leave the city."

Cassandra leaned back against the wall and tried to relax. Shivers settled next to her and with a light touch to the back of her hand she felt warm and drowsy. Just before sleep took her from the waking world, she wondered how Shivers did what he could do. Then she wondered how she could feel different peoples energies. As she wondered about Dorita she was dreaming of her parents. Her mother kissed her on the forehead and had placed the yellow sapphire, ivory and bronze amulet around her neck.


Cassandra woke up looking into her mother's muddy brown eyes. "Mama?"

"Yes Cassidi. Help your brother with his blanket." Cassandra blinked then realized a man in guard uniform stood over them.

"Mama, how far to cousin Meleda's?"

"About two days." Dorita helped Cassandra up and Cassandra helped Shivers fold his blanket to be placed back into the satchel.

The guard hurumph at the trio and turned back to his post.



Dorita put her hand in her pocket and glided like a ghost to where the guard was standing. She held her hand towards him and blew upon it. A pale, green gossamer cloud floated around the guard’s head. He paused and shook his head, yawned, and settled slowly against the stone of the gatehouse and slid to the ground, his chin resting on his chest. Within seconds, soft snores where filling the air.

“What on earth did you do, Dorita?” Shivers questioning eyes were like saucers. Cassandra stood peering at the sleeping guard, her mouth hanging open.

“It is a Powder of Forgetfulness.” Dorita was gathering up their belongings. “It was a gift from an old mage friend. The guard will lose all recollection of the last 30 or so minutes. When he wakes up, in about an hour’s time, he will think that he fell asleep on duty.” She handed them their belongings and pushed them towards the gate. ”He will not be too keen to broadcast that information. We must hurry and leave the City. Sidhelein Bridge must be crossed and the cover of the woods reached before anyone else sees us.” The boy and girl looked relieved.

“So the guard won’t remember us passing.” Cassandra took her knapsack from Dorita, then followed Shivers as he went through the city gate and rushed down the slope to the bridge, starting across it at a gentle trot. Dorisa brought up the rear at a slower pace. When they reached the far side, the two young people turned and waited for her to catch up. She motioned them to go on and they toiled up the slope on the other side of the bridge towards the woods as if the hounds of hell were pursuing them.

A cool nebulous mist hung about the river at this early hour, but they did not feel its chill as they raced for safety. They gained the shelter of the trees, the gloom of the early morning engulfing them, for the sun had not yet risen. There was no one else on the road ahead. Their pace slowed and Dorita caught them up. The going was easier here, the road undulated and twisted before them. As they moved deeper into the woods, the City disappeared from view.

“We must get as far away from the City as we can before sunrise and then leave the road.” Cassandra and Dorita nodded at these words. Shivers had already proved his worth to the two women. “The elf will want to recapture his prize and we will be harder to find if we travel under the cover of the trees.” The three travellers quicken their pace. Sunrise was a mere two hours away.

“You are right, Shivers. It would be wise to get under cover.” They all nodded in agreement between their heavy breathing. “It will take Mortimer a while to realize that we are gone. I was to bring Cassandra to him at 6.30 am.”

“How long do you think it will be before he comes looking for us?” Cassandra looked at Shivers and Dorita, her brow furrowed in consternation.

“Even when he finds out, he won’t know which road we have taken. And very soon, there will be more pressing matters on his mind.” Dorita gave a derisive snort. “Remember, he has upset the wrong people and they will want to make him suffer for his insolence.” Cassandra looked a little happier and redoubled her steps.

“Let’s not waste anymore breath talking, then!” Shivers laughed and skipped off up the road. “Come on, Cassandra! I’ll race you to the next bend.” Dorita smiled as the two youngsters sped off ahead of her. Let them have their fun. There will be little enough of it in the days ahead.
Roen rode his horse down the rutted wagon road toward Bansbree. He was surprised by the number of people and wagons coming from the direction of the city. One wagon sat to the side of the road with a smashed wheel. The driver stood to one side while a wainwright worked on the wheel.

Roen drifted to the side of the road. "Where is everyone going?"

"The governor sent out a call for metal workers. I am a candlemaker. I look to make my fortune in this venture."

Roen looked around. "Seems like there are a few of the same mind." He continued with his slow ride toward the city. A few hours later, he stopped on a hill to watch the wide river below. Ships of various sizes moved up and down it. "Now, that is the way to travel. Sit back and let others do the work."

He had never learned to swim and stayed away from ships. He was not overjoyed with this task, but the coin was more than he could refuse. He preferred fighting over teaching, but at least in teaching there were fewer opportunities for meeting death.

After entering over the drawbridge, he rode to the stables and left his horse. He was not a city man and found this place smelly and filthy. It was hard to walk without stepping in some unnameable filth. Fortunately, his time of service here would be over soon enough. He quickly walked past the market glad to be away from the cacophony.

He did not inquire of the smith's shops. His nose led him well enough. When he saw the broad sign. Twaning's Iron Works on the building, he approached the smith. "You are Jebodiah?"

The smith looked up. "Yes, what can I make for you?"

"I'm Roen answering the message for a sword trainer." He spied a young man at the bellows. "Is that the lad?"

Jebodiah grinned, "That is my son, Fren." He turned around and shouted, "Fren, tell Sylena to come quick."

Roen glared at the smith. "I'm training a girl?"

* * *

Fren almost ran Sylena down as she stepped into the smithy. She heard someone shout, "I'm training a girl?"

Fren grabbed her hand. "Come on, from the sound of the roar, he might leave before you even take one lesson."

"Who? What? Slow down." Sylena dodged stuff lying about the floor. She jerked at her hand, but Fren's grip didn't loosen. They came to a sudden halt a few feet from a handsome man on a horse.

He turned and glared down at both of them. Sylena took a step back. Her moonstone glowed.

The man pointed at her and said, "Do not wear that where anyone can see. There are cutpurses who be glad to relieve it of you."

Sylena fumbled at her blouse, hiding the moonstone from sight.

As Roen stepped down from his horse, he muttered. "I know this is a very bad idea, but I did make an agreement. What's your name, girl?"

"I'm Sylena."

"Jebodiah, is there a place to practice?"

"On the far side of the armory is a place where the city guard practices."

Sylena backed up another step as the man looked her up and down. "Change into something suitable for practicing with a sword," he demanded.

"I don't even have a sword?" Sylena protested.

The man laughed. "You are not ready for a sword. Now go," he snapped, time's wasting."



Sylena groaned. Her arms felt as if they might fall off. She dropped the rocks on the ground and said, "I hurt all over."

"In your time at the smithy, have you watched the smith at his anvil?"

"Yes."

"The metal must be pounded into the shape for which it will be used. So it is with your body. You also need training to succeed at the task before you."

"What task?"

"It is much too soon to speak of that. Now, it is time to run."

"Oh well, I like to run."

She watched as Roen filled a pack with wood. "Put this on your back and run."

"How far?"

"To the keep and back."

On Sylena's third trip back toward the keep, the burning in her legs hurt almost as much as the aching in her right side. "Why am I doing this?" she groaned.

"That's a good question."

She almost shrieked at Fren's unexpected voice at her side. "Where did you come from?"

"Father sent me. You are to come and assist with dinner preparations."

Sylena groaned. "Will this day ever end?"
Fren twisted his lips into the smirk Sylena was becoming all too familiar with. “You’re enjoying this aren’t you?” she grumbled at him. But he only laughed.

“No stopping, girl.” Roen barked. “You’ll not stop until I tell you it is time.”

“For that you’ll run with me.” She grumbled at him, her brows raised in challenge.

Fren shrugged and fell into pace beside her. When they made it to Roen he yelled for one more time. “Because you stopped.”

Sylena groaned.

“Race you.” Fren yelled picking up his pace.

Not to be outdone, Sylena sped up. “You’re a bugger, you know that, don’t cha. This is not even fair. I have all the weight and I have been at this....”

“Complaining, Sylena. You better not let Roen hear you or he’s bound to give you another round.”

All Sylena could manage was a glare, but Fren raced on. His laugh floating back on the wind.

Just as they reached Roen, who stood bound with a scowl and his thick arms crossed over is chest, Mirabella crossed the green and slipped up beside him with a stealth he would not acknowledge. He hid his surprise at her presence and glared at her instead.

“Roen.” She said in way of greeting. She smiled up at him. “I see you are as cheery as ever.” His scowl deepened and she laughed at him. It rubbed at him that her laughter and smiles warmed him. He did not want this….whatever this, was. It was not attraction. She was far too young for that, or so he told himself as he stared down into her fathomless silver eyes. They could trap a man if he was not careful. Dragging his gaze back up, he watched Fren fly past him then stop and double over at the waist.

Fren dragged the air raggedly into his lungs.

“You are a fare runner, boy, but you lack stamina.” Roen growled.

Fren glanced up at him and grinned; it was the same wiley smile his sister wielded. Laughing, the boy dragged the air into him.

Sylena made it, slowing her pace to stop before him. She stood tall and although she dragged air into her burning lungs , she showed no sign of weakness as she glared at him. Roen was impressed. She was strong, no doubt worthy of her destiny, but he kept his thoughts to himself for now.

Mirabella looked at them all, her eyes dancing with delight. “Father sent me to get all of you. He figured you would get wrapped up in the way of it and need me to roust you.”

She glanced at Roen who had moved to gather all their things. She watched him as he took the pack of wood from Sylena and gestured for Fren to carry it.

“Now you will see what she was up against. Now you have only to carry it home.”

Fren settled the pack on his back and groaned as the weight settled.

Sylena and Mirabella shared a chuckle at Fren’s anguished look.

“Roen,” Mirabella called to him and waited until he glanced at her before going on, “Father asked that you join us for dinner. He insisted.”

“Well....” he began rather unsure, but Mirabella’s smile drew him and he nodded, almost in defeat.

She grinned and winked over at Sylena who bit her bottom lip to keep from laughing.

The girls lead the way. Mirabella pointed out many of the sights as they moved along the streets back to the smithy.

“Do I still have to help with the dinner preparations?” Sylena whispered over to Mirabella.

Mirabella raised her brows and looked at Sylena’s serious expression, then she gave a light laugh. “Did Fren tell you that?” When Sylena nodded, Mirabella let out a chuckle and shook her head. “No, he was only trying to add to your pain, I’m thinking. He can be such an ass.”

Sylena let her smile slip forth as she began to feel lighter than she had in ages, despite the pains that were already enveloping her body, tightening and tenderizing muscles that were beginning to scream for attention.

“I’ve some herbal tonics and salves for your muscles to use tonight. I am thinking he worked you hard and you’ll be needing them.”

“Oh, I will. I most certainly will.”

* * * * * *

When they got to the smithy, Jebodiah nodded toward them as they slipped in to the back of the shop. He was just finishing up his last task of the day.

Fren moved to help with the clean up and the girls took Roen up the stairs to the kitchen.

“You two can sit while I get the ale.” Mirabella told them as she moved with a grace that drew Roen’s gaze. He turned his face into a frown and turned to look around the small kitchen. Mirabella organized the last of the meal preparations and by the time Fren and her father joined them, all was ready.

Jebodiah took his children’s hands as they gathered at the table. Fren reached for Sylena’s and Mirabella took up Roen’s holding him firmly when he tried to pull away. Jebodiah’s prayer settled him and he bowed his head.

Once they dug into the food, Jebodiah turned his wise gaze to Roen. “So how did the training go?”

Roen nodded. “She’ll do... with a lot of hard work.”

“No doubt. But I can see a fire there. She’ll learn quick and fast. Probably surprise you.” He looked over at Sylena and gave her a smile. She blushed at the praise and dipped her head down taking in more of the stew that seemed to heal as much as fill the void of hunger she felt.

Roen nodded.

“I have a further proposition for you...” Jebodiah waited for Roen to look at him before going on. “I want you to train my two as well.”

“Both....” Roen sputtered sending his ale across the table. He whipped at his face in frustration. His eyes blazed fire at Jebodiah.

Fren and Mirabella looked just as surprised.

“I’ll pay you well, don’t fret there.... but with war coming. I’ll want them prepared.”

Fren sat up a little straighter, eager to have his chance. Mirabella also shifted with eagerness and smiled as she watched Roen’s reaction.

“All of them?” He managed to rasp out.

“Yes, you can manage it, can you?”

“Well, oh course, but...”

“Then it is settled. You will train all three.”

Roen watched as the man dug into his meal. After a glance at each of the others, who were all gazing at him expectantly, he shrugged then dug into the food as well. Conversation surged on to other topics leaving Roen with his thoughts. He would be training all three. What had he got himself into.
It was the third day in a row that her father was incapable of finishing his evening meal and quite frankly, Felisa grew worried over her father's health. She finished her supper and chatted of nothing important with her mother, the Lady Dalya Guarnez, and an anxious young twerp whom her mother had invited for an evening's casual visitation.

Rodney Farrister showed some promise of intelligence, but Felisa found his trite and simplistic manner toward her rather demeaning. She knew the type, well enough; raised in a rich household by parents who doted upon their only son's every whim with little or no real discipline except by the teachers they chose to school him or the nurses they chose to raise him. Her parents had raised her in similar fashion, so she had learned quite early in life to act the part of the dull minded child they expected. She'd also grown used to the long absences of either parent and her days spent under the tutelage of her nurses. She surmised around the age of nine years that her parents couldn't help the way they had failed to raise her, since they were the products of precisely the same type of upbringing. Therefore, she'd forgiven them their failings long ago.

After dinner, Dalya requested the three of them enjoy a game of Sticks and Stones, which was the only appropriate game allowed between a young man and young woman who were not within the first or second family influence. Felisa squealed in mock joy at the prospect of the childishly simple game. She relished the hesitant look upon Rodney's face at the prospect of such a boring past-time. However, he aquiesced and indeed they played several games of Sticks and Stones while her mother added to a complicated needle point she'd been working on for months. Felisa admitted, the Lady Dalya had a wonderful talent for needlepoint.


After letting the twit win the third game in a row, Felisa shrewdly won the fourth, when by all rights, she should have lost.

"How'd you do that?" Rodney stood over the table and scratched his head.

"How'd I do what?" Felisa smiled as innocently as a babe suckling the wetnurse's tit.

Rodney took a long look at Felisa and she saw from the growing furrow upon his brow that he reassessed his previous opinion of her as a complete air-head. She stood suddenly and took his hand within hers. "Mama, is it okay if we step out on the balcony for some night air before our guest must retire?"

Dalya looked up from her cross-stitching and smiled her approval. "Why, certainly Dear," was all she said before returning her attention to needle and cloth.

Rodney looked puzzled as Felisa placed a finger to her lips and looked with nervous expectation toward their inattentive chaperone. She visibly relaxed as she leaned over the stone rail enclosing the terrace. However, Rodney's tension mounted where hers lessened. He stood well apart from Felisa and within sight of the Lady Dalya.

"My, but aren't you the proper one?"

"I beg your pardon?" He fidgetted, but looked casually over toward the lamp lit paths leading into the gardens.

"C'mon. Be brave and chance stepping by my side. I promise not to bite...hard." Felisa laughed as Rodney stepped toward her then stopped, still arms reach away from her.

Felisa sighed and turned her back upon the young man her mother hoped to become one of her suitors. After what seemed a long silence, as she braced her arms upon the stone rail, she felt his warmth as he stepped behind her. She still looked toward the gardens her back toward him and with a mischievous smirk, Felisa stood and stepped back. Her mild surprise that he didn't step away as she leaned into him sent a mild shiver along her spine. Instead, Rodney wrapped both his arms around her shoulders, he was quite a bit taller than her, and she felt herself flush. He'd called her bluff and now she needed to reset the boundaries of propriety. Maybe, Rodney wasn't the dunzel she thought him.

Very casually, she pointed toward the nearest path and explained that it lead toward the part of the garden she had planned. As she talked about the placement of shrub, tree and begonias, she gently remove an embracing arm and stepped away from the young man. When she turned to face him she saw him grinning from ear-to-ear.

"Maybe, we should return inside." His soft baritone admittedly took charge of the situation.

"Yes, I think you are correct. But first let me get, well..."

"Yes, you do seem a little flushed. It wouldn't improve my standing at all with your mother if you returned in your present state...Or would it?"

Felisa looked down completely overcome with her embarrassment. "I apologize for..."

Rodney laughed and Felisa looked up into his face. "Please, no need for apologies. How would we learn each other's boundaries without the coy game?"

Felisa relaxed and laughed with Rodney. She had completely underestimated him, as much as he had her earlier. She stepped to the side and allowed Rodney to step up to the rail. "Do we need to return so soon? Mother will call when she is ready to retire for the evening. Unless, you don't wish to spend any more time with me."

The two talked about their perspective upbringing. Felisa discovered that Rod (he had asked her to call him Rod) and she had quite similar experiences in realizing the limitations of parental love and the burden of familial responsibilities. She decided, by the time her mother had called to them that is was getting late, that if nothing else, she liked Rod. She believed he would understand her as an equal, if their perspective parents agreed on the marriage contract.





Morty woke to the sound of young Eddie bustling into his chamber with a pail of steaming water and a flagon of ale. The Elf Lord climbed from his bed and strode behind a screen in the corner of the room to do his morning business. Eddie scuttled across the room with a warm, wet cloth at the ready. As Morty reappeared, he took the proffered the cloth and used it to wash his hands before chucking it back to the boy.

“No slacking this morning, boy! We have much to do before our guests arrive.” The boy was rummaging in the closet for a clean shirt and trousers for his master. Morty pushed him aside and selected a clean white shirt which he tossed the boy. Eddie caught it and laid it out on the bed. His master picked out a red velvet jacket and matching trousers, draping them over the chest at the end of the bed. The boy rushed to assist his master to dress, then stood ready to receive his morning orders.

“Your breakfast should be on the table in the dining hall by now, Master.” Morty was putting the finishing touches to his attire.

“That’s fine, boy. Find Jasper and tell him to report to me downstairs in ten minutes.” Eddie bowed out and scurried off. Morty could hear his clogs as they clattered down the stairs. He chuckled to himself and hummed as he sauntered out of the room. He descended the stairway just in time to see the boy disappearing out through a side door on his way to fetch the head doors-man. Six bells rang out as he entered the dining hall. He was halfway through his breakfast before Jasper knocked on the door.

“Come in!” Jasper bustled into the room, out of breath from rushing to answer Morty’s summons. “Take the weight off your feet, man, and catch your breath.” He hooked a stool out from under the table and nodded to it. Jasper lowered his bulk onto the stool.

“Thank you, Sir.” His breath wheezed in and out for a few seconds. His heart was pounding like the hammers of Hell.

“Here. Have a bite of breakfast with me while we discuss the business at hand.” Morty pushed a half a loaf of bread on a platter and some cheese towards Jasper, who accepted it gratefully.

“We must prepare for our guests. Dorita should be here soon with the girl. My friend, Ilfilio, is taking her off our hands as an apprentice. That should get the Sapphire Dragon Guild off my back. I am also giving Eddie to him as part of the deal. Kynyr will be here soon to change their binding spells from me to Ilfi.”

The two men tucked in to the food with gusto. They planned the day ahead. Morty was in good spirits at the prospect of being rid of the gypsy girl, and it wouldn’t hurt to do his friend a favour at the same time. He didn’t want to think about what could happen if he displeased the powerful Dragon Guild any more that he had already.

They were deeply engrossed in their discussion when Morty stopped and looked up with a look of annoyance on his face. The sound of seven bells was ringing in his ears.

“Where the hell is that blasted, old woman? She should have been here with our young gypsy friend half an hour ago.” Jasper stood up in consternation. “Jasper, go and find her and tell her to hurry up. We want all the business with Kynyr sorted before Ilfi gets here.” The servant scurried out of the room and Morty could hear his loud calls for Dorita fading away as he searched the house for her.

Morty paced around the room as he waited for Jasper to return. He stopped when he heard running feet clattering down the staircase.

“Mi’Lord! Mi’lord!” Jasper burst back into the room and skidded to a halt before Morty . “There is not a trace of Dorisa anywhere in the house.” He paused and drew back a little as thunder gathered on Morty’s brow. “The girl’s room is locked but all seems silent inside. I have sent for two of the guards to break down the door, but I fear the girl has escaped our clutches.” Fear clouded Jasper’s eyes.

Morty stormed from the room and took the stairs two at a time. He arrived at Cassandra’s door as several guards ran into the upper hallway from the back stairwell.

“Get that door open! Now!” The guards took turns in trying to shoulder the stout door open. “Get out of my way!” Monty swept clean the top of a nearby low table. “Here! Use this to break it down.” The door splintered under the onslaught. Morty brushed the debris aside and peered inside.

“Hell’s Bells, she’s gone!” Morty cuffed the guards out of his way as he stormed down the hallway. “Call out the rest of the guards! We must find them both. By the Gods! That woman will suffer for this when I get my hands on her.” The gibbering guards leapt to obey their orders as the Elf Lord headed for the stairs, spewing spittle and ire in his wake.

Four hours later he was back sitting at the table in the dining hall with Ilfi and Jasper. Kynyr had come and gone, changing the binding spell on Eddie before he left. Ilfi would not be taking Cassandra with him after all. The three men cursed their ill- fortune. They looked dishevelled and disgruntled. Every street and alleyway in the city had been combed. Even the City Guard had been unable to find out how the runaways had left the city unseen or which direction they were travelling in. Search parties had been sent out along all the roads leading out of the city but the whereabouts of the three fugitives had yet to be found.

There was a knock at the door. A manservant entered on Morty’s command and made his way to stand in front of the Elf Lord.

“Escuse me, Mi'lord. There are three gentlemen wishing to see you.” Monty looked at the man impatiently.

“I’m in no mood for visitors! Send them away!” The man turned towards the door. “Just a minute. Did they say what business they want to discuss with me?” The man turned back towards the table.

“The old one said they are from the Sapphire Dragon Guild, Mi'Lord. The two younger ones look like warriors.” Morty looked dazed. How was he going to explain what had happened to Cassandra. The wrath of the Dragon Guild was infamous throughout the land.
Jebodiah placed the limestone on the chute, and it slid down into the molten ore. As soon as the impurities were removed from the ore, he would place the crate into it. He was apprehensive and curious as to what would happen after that, but Elric had a reason for his instructions.

Normally, Fren would help with this process, but he didn't want anyone around today. Roen would keep their minds and bodies occupied. He smiled at the thought.

* * *

"A good swordsman must use his brain as well as his body," Roen said. He stood under a large shade tree with Fren, Mirabella, and Sylena sitting in the grass before him. "Know what your opponent will do before they do it." He held up a wooden sword and took a position. "Who can tell me what I will do next?"

"You will move to your right," Fren answered, smirking at his sister.

"Okay, get your sword and come."

Fren stood up and lifted the wooden sword and stood before him.

"Move closer, Fren, to within sword length distance."

Roen ignored the giggles of the two girls. "I hope you are paying attention," he snapped at them. "One of you will be next."

Fren grinned, and Roen wondered if the money was worth the headache of teaching these three. "You ready?" he asked.

Fren nodded as Roen took his stance. He moved and swung with the sword. Fren grunted as it struck him in the ribs. He sank to his knees. "That hurt," he complained.

"Yes, now tell me what went wrong?"

"He was watching your eyes," Sylena answered.

Roen gave her a look and said, "Good guess."

"No, I learned that in serving at the Seven Stars tavern. Keep your eyes on their hands."

Roen nodded his head. "You have it partly correct. Watch your opponents body. Sylena, you're up next."

She rolled her eyes and stood up. "How can I ever expect to win against you? You are almost two of me."

"Can anyone answer Sylena's question?"

"The larger person has power while the smaller has speed," Fren responded.

"Well said, Fren. I'm glad to see your mind is at work," Roen quipped.

Sylena patted Fren on the head. "Did the wittle boy get hurt playing with his sword?"

"Not even funny."

"Okay, Selena, are you ready?"

She nodded her head, and Roen took his stance. He moved and she sat on the grass, holding her side. "Who can tell me what Sylena did wrong?"

* * *

It was near supper time when Jebodiah prepared to move the crate into the molten ore. He set up a large barrel to act as a fulcrum. He took a long piece of metal. He tie ropes about the crate, leaving a loop at the top. He lifted the crate, pushing down on the lever through the rope, swinging it about, and setting it into the ore. He pulled back, stepping all the way out of the smithy.

The bottom of the crate charred black. A pool of white began to form around the crate. He stared as the ore began to sparkle. After a very short time, the crate was gone. The pool of white kept expanding, and the sparkle in the ore seemed to be growing brighter.

He started setting up his forms for swords, axes, spears, knives, and shields.

* * *

Sylena was not the only one walking back to the smithy much slower and sorer than when they left this morning. Only Roen seemed to have any energy left.

"I hope you all sleep well," Roen chortled. "Training continues at day break."

They all moaned, but no one said a word. As they approached the smithy, Sylena saw a bright glow. She started in that direction.

Roen's firm hand came down on her shoulder. "Jebodiah was very firm about anyone coming to the smithy today."

Sylena wanted to protest, but she was too worn out.
The group filed into the back of the smithy and up the stairs to the kitchen. Roen had let them go watching them with a smile on his face. He had worked them hard and though he would not say anything to them he could see a glimmer of promise from each one. When they were gone from sight he turned and headed off for a pub. It was time he settled into his own place and find a pub to ease his own needs.

In the kitchen, the three flopped down on the sturdy chairs. Fren dumped his head down onto his folded arms and probably would have gone to sleep if Mirabella had not kicked him in the shines with her last once of energy.

“We still have to make dinner.” Her voice was barely a whisper, slipping between her lips that were pursued together where her hands pressed them in as they held her head upright.

“I am too tired to eat.” Fren said on a moan.

“Aye, but Father will want his dinner.”

“I wish that he could make it himself.... or better yet, you could use some of your powers to whip up something without having to move.”

Sylena chuckled at that. It was weak. Her head rested on her arms, but unlike Fren her eyes her exposed and open to watch the byplay before her.

“What are laughing at, wench.” Fren grumbled tipping his head so that he could look over at her. “You have to help, too.”

“We look a sight.” Sylena chuckled again.

Mirabella smiled over at her, then glanced at Fren. “We do.”

“Well I feel worse than I look....”

Their father’s footsteps rumbled up the steps but nobody moved. “Feel worse than you look.... oh, what children are these?” The man rasped good humour lifted the corner of his lips and a chuckle of his own drifted over them.

Mirabella shifted to get up and groaned at the pain that seized up her body. She moved to wash up and begin the preparations. Jebodiah moved beside her and pressed a kiss to her forehead. When she looked up at him he smiled lovingly at her. She managed to smile back.

“Tomorrow will be a reprieve.” Jebodiah told them.

Fren lifted his head looking hopeful.

“Tomorrow we must return to routine. We do not want others to be suspicious. Zelda had her children poking around a bit. I am sure she is wondering why you told her you could not come today.”

There was no doubt of that and Mirabella nodded solemnly.

“Tomorrow. Roen will train only Sylena in the morning.” When she began to smile at him he held up a hand. “Fren will spend his morning with me. We have orders to fill. Orders I put off for today’s undertaking.” When they looked eager to ask him questions, he shook his head and went on, “Mirabella will spend her morning with Zelda. We will need fresh bread anyway. In the afternoon you will join Sylena to train.”

All three groaned at this.

“We must not awake suspicion. I fear Zelda will call us out if she is put off too long.”

Mirabella nodded at this. Zelda was a strong woman and an excellent teacher. She had learned much from the older woman, including a few healing tricks with spices and herbs. The woman could pass for an herbalist or maybe even an apothecary but her heart was in her baking and her bread was divine. A few well placed herbs and spices and the crowds just came flocking back for her bakery items. But she was also astute with a cunning that could cut deep if her suspicions were evoked. Mirabella knew she would need to devote her mornings in the woman’s tutelage as she had been for these last few years. Not only was she learning, but her own talents added to Zelda’s supply of bakery items. Besides her father appreciated the daily bread and occasional biscuits it engendered.

Sylena stood and moved to help Mirabella with the dinner. The shared a newfound sense of working together side by side. But tonight remained quiet.

Fren shifted up and groaned. He was used to heavy work in the smithy but the pokes and jabs from the training were still new to his body and he needed to harden up. Stretching up to the ceiling he let out a growl that had the girls grinning over at him. “I’ll get the water. But don’t expect it as quick as usual.”

“You are usually quick?” Mirabella chided, then she and Sylena fell into giggles when Fren wrinkled his face at her as he passed them and headed for the stairs.

Out behind the shop he grabbed the pails and made his way through the darkening shadows to the communal well. Behind Gustav’s shop he slowed when he heard voices. The words sent shivers along his spine.

“I tell you odd things are happening. He was working alone today... he never does that, always has his lanky kid helping him, but he sent him off somewhere.... I even hear Zelda claiming that she couldn’t get good help. That daughter of his had told her she couldn’t work this morning.... odd that. That girl never misses a day with Zelda.....”

An unknown voice grumbled darkly, “What were you able to make out?”

“Nothing.” Gustav grumbled back. “He plastered a sign on his door and kept it locked. He’s never done that before either. I even knocked and did not hear a thing. The few times I made it over there it was way too quiet...not the usual sounds at all.”

“Hmmm. Well, tell me more if you learn anything else.”

“Yes, of course.”

Fren stood hidden in the shadows afraid to move. He waited until the man with the unknown voice ambled back to his horse and vaulted back onto it. He watched Gustav who watched the man ride off towards the other side of town. When the man was out of sight Gustav moved back into his own smithy and clanged the latch closed for the night. Fren let out the breath he was holding then moved on to get his water. Thoughts swirled in his mind and he wondered who the other man on the horse had been. Someone of power, no doubt, but who? He would tell his family when he returned and they would all be a little more vigilant. Suspicion was already rising.
Endora


Damn birds, hovering around like I had a fresh dead piece of meat for them to pick at. They vulchers, the whole lot of them.

Endora lights her lantern and sits up on the shelf so she could see what she was brewing in her pot. A pinch of this and a claw of that, stirring it and inhaling the fumes.

Smirking to herself, If Mortimer thinks I was just going to sit here and rot he has another thing coming. She had stayed hidden and quiet for over a year and a half now, nobody searching for her or even checking on her. She built a home for herself here and found her place in the world again. Over and over again she played it through her head. That fateful day that Mortimer thought he could over rule her rights and keep her hidden from the world. Wanting her for himself to curse the ones who crossed his path.

The way he touched her and related her to a type of woman of the dark. Pleasing men as they wished. She never once slept with a man, ever. Her mother Zandora was put to death for her magic. Burnt at the stake for posessing powers of the unknown kind. The kind that a woman of human nature could use without anyone seeing it coming.

Endora swore she would see to it that Mortimer would pay for the way he treated her mother and held her against her will for so many years. She had been casted out of Bansbree to the outskirts of at the edge of Dunsland. Left to fend for herself and die in shame or so Mortimer thought. She fought for her life and gained her strength, knowing she would have her day to shine when the time was right.

For now, Endora gathers her powers and strengthens them everyday. She didn't need the help of anyone really but just to have people know that she was not that person Mortimer painted her out to be was enough to keep her going.

Deep in her thoughts and usually always alone left with the wild ones in the forest she sits at her table and eats alone. Tonight however was different. She could hear wheels crushing the road as they rolled in a slow pace. She blew out her lantern and sat in the corner of her clay room. Hoping they would just go by and not smell what she had brewing over the open fire.
The Langster House


"There are three gentlemen wishing to see you.” Monty looked at the man impatiently.

“I’m in no mood for visitors! Send them away!” The man turned towards the door. “Just a minute. Did they say what business they want to discuss?” The man turned back towards the table.

“The old one said they are from the Sapphire Dragon Guild, Mi'Lord. The two younger ones look like warriors.” Morty looked dazed. How was he going to explain what had happened to Cassandra. The wrath of the Dragon Guild was infamous throughout the land.


Mortimer looked at Ilfilio and Jasper as he steadied himself by gripping the back of a chair. His mind raced.

After a momentary indecisive silence the Elf underlord barked out his orders to the manservant. "Stall them for as long as you are able, Humphreys. Explain that I have been in search of...No. Tell them simply, that I have been out on business and must freshen up before receiving callers. Offer them tea, have Florisa entertain them." Mortimer turned towards a wall sporting a sculpture of a naked Dwarf male in chains kneeling before a sneering Elf conqueror.

Humphreys left straight away to deliver his master's message.

As Morty pulled one of the chains around the submissive Dwarf's collar, he nodded toward an opening wall panel. "Would you gentlemen wish to accompany me? This passage is long, but it leads under the river and into Sidhelein domain."

"You do realize that the SDG won't be stalled for very long." As he spoke, Ilfi stepped smartly toward the passageway.

Jasper followed his master's guest without saying a word.

"Yes, and they no doubt will have the ability to discern my recent mode of egress from my home. But, do you really wish to still be here when they discover I'm gone and you two might know how I went?"

Morty stepped inside the passage behind his guests then looked back expectantly at Eddie who stood frozen by one of the chairs. "Ilfi, I'm afraid you need to instruct the boy, he is your servant now."

"Oh yes, of course." Ilfilio cleared his throat and said, "Come boy. And hurry."

Eddie moved stiffly toward the passage. It was obvious to the three adults, he did not wish to leave with them. The fact that he came nearly at a run, as stiff legged as a stone gollem, proved the strength of Kynyr's binding spell.

Ilfilio smiled at Eddie as he stopped just behind him, his head down in resignation. "There, there boy. You and I will get on fine."

Eddie looked up into his new master's eyes. Ilfilio was struck dumb when he saw his wet cheeks. He laid a gentle hard leather pad on the boy's shoulder and patted him.

Meanwhile, Jasper lit two torches as Morty closed the passage and chanted a combination lock/trap spell. When finished he took one of the torches from Jasper and led the way toward hopeful safety.


Rod had been observing the niceties for the sake of appearances. He resolved to make his excuses as soon as politeness allowed. He sighed inwardly as he won the third game of Sticks and Stones in a row and resigned himself to another few hours of tedium. 'When will father realise that I have no interest in these dull society girls? I need something more than a brood mare for a wife.'

His heart had sunk at the childish enthusiasm of the Governor’s daughter for the simple game suggested by her mother. He had stopped playing that one years ago. He had opened the fourth game fully expecting to win it just as easily as the rest.

Felisa had countered his first three moves before he realised what was afoot. 'The little minx is beating me!' For a moment, his brow clouded in concentration then he made what he thought was the winning move and glanced up at her in triumph. Her eyes danced with laughter as she deftly countered his move and swept the board in victory.

Her invitation to step onto the balcony was his second surprise. 'This is turning into an interesting evening after all.' Intrigued, he followed the girl onto the balcony, his nerves as taut as a bowstring. Felisa was enjoying his discomfiture. She had caught him off guard with her teasing forwardness. Rod’s mind raced as he re-evaluated her.

She was playing with him and he was enjoying it. She was showing herself to be more entertaining than the usual empty-headed social butterfly that his father lined up for him. He began to warm to this feisty young woman, and thought that, after all, she might make a worthy companion. 'What on earth will she do next?'

He matched her teasing boldness and, as he stepped up behind her, she leaned back against him, his head filling with the sweet scent of her perfume. After a few short moments, she gently disentangled herself from his embrace and pointing to the nearest path, recovered her composure by chatting about the part of the garden that she had planned.

Ever the gentleman, Rod offered to usher Felisa back inside. She declined, suggesting that they could remain on the balcony. The two young companions spent some time learning that they had much in common before Lady Dalya called her daughter and their young guest to return indoors, and they both bid farewell to the young gentleman.

Rod mounted his horse and whistled as he rode home. For once, he and his father shared the same idea. Baron Farrister and Governor Guamez were old friends who would both welcome the joining of their two families by the marriage of their children. Why else would they have engineered this meeting between the two young people?
Elric sat at the long table carved from rock many generations ago. He knew many of the dwarves of the council of Tracledon, but there were many new faces, and it was the new dwarves especially who were opposed to aiding the kingdom of men.

Flarik, self-appointed leader of the newer members of the council stood. By custom, weapons were not brought into a dwarves council, but he defied custom. The handle of his battle axe was visible at his side. "This is the fourth day of the council meeting and continuing to remain in deadlock. In accordance with the rules of the council, I call for a vote for a dismissal of the council at this time."

Elric stood. "Flarik is partially correct. This is the fourth day, but no council business has been presented, so a dismissal seems premature."

Flarik glared at him, caressing the handle of his long battle axe. "I considered only to save time for everyone. The results of our meeting will be as in the three days prior. We all have more pressing matters to attend to."

"You may think you can see the future," Elric retorted, "but I do have one last question. How did an orc enter Tracledon and why?"

A low murmur started at the table, which rumbled louder and louder. "I do not see the point of this question other than to bring division to the council," Flarik shouted.

Elric motioned with his hands, and two dwarves entered the chamber with an orc in chains. Those gathered about the table erupted, shouting protests and demanding answers.

"Do not be deceived," Flarik said in a loud voice. "The only one of our council who is a mage conveniently finds an orc and then asks how and why he is here." The dwarves around the table drew quiet as Flarik spoke. "Elric clearly wishes to divert us from our purpose, which is to make a decision concerning helping the outside world of men. In his desperation, he is willing to even become a traitor to his people to bring an outsider with him."

"Nonsense," Elric's voice boomed, "I have witnesses--"

Flarik lifted the battle ax, slamming its head into the floor. "With your magic, you could bring a city of witnesses, but who would believe any of them? This council is not going in the direction that you desire, so you will do whatever is necessary to gain your desired outcome."

"I vote to dissolve the council and form a new one," Elric said.

Flarik smiled. "I vote that the dwarves remain neutral and not take sides in any conflict between men and orcs."

The dwarves about the table cast their verbal vote.

Elric sat under the Great Tree. The decisions of the Tracledon council were considered binding on all of the dwarves, and so his appeal the to the other dwarf mages fell on deaf ears. The orc and goblin armies would come, and he couldn't stop them. Now he hoped that the plan he had already set in motion would work or Bansbree would soon be just a word lost to history.

* * *

Younce was frightened. He wanted nothing more than to turn his wagon about and return to Bansbree. But the road behind him was crowded with other wagons, and he refused to leave his wagon and walk back.

He spotted an orc yesterday and two more this morning. He asked several people if they saw anything unusual, but no one had. The last orc war was so long ago no one remembered anything of it other than tales passed down from one generation to the other.

His great grandmother Iris spoke of how her great grandfather had only one leg, which had been cut off and eaten by orcs, then they used the bone to make tools and ornaments.

No one paid much attention to her tales of the orc wars, but the sightings of the orcs reminded him and fear hovered at the edge of his mind, threatening to take over. He feared Mortimer but was terrified of the orcs. He hoped that their numbers were so few that the orcs would just ignore them.

* * *

Sylena lay in the dark. She was so tired she could hardly collect a thought. She considered how her life had changed so much in the space of such a short time. She fingered the moonstone about her neck, wishing for Elric to return. She had so many questions to ask while at the same time she wondered if she would like the answers.

Her life her was so different than that at the tavern. She wondered at the reaction of those around her if they knew. She had been called a 'wench' and worse on many occasions. She lost count of how many times she had been groped, but her knife never let her down, so she stayed safe.

She had no memories of her family, and this was her first time to live with one. She felt empty inside. Tears filled her eyes at the ache she felt in her heart. She tried to keep from sobbing but could not. Her cries sounded like that of a hurt animal.

She felt warm arms enveloping her. "What is it?" Mirabella asked softly.

"I have never had a family, so I never knew what I was missing."

"And I have never had a sister," Mirabella replied. "But it seems I have one now."

Sylena stayed quiet for a long time before saying, "Do you really mean that?"

"Give me your right hand."

Sylena moved her hand forward and felt a prick on her finger. Then her finger was pressed into Mirabella's. "Bonded in blood, in life, and in death," she said.

"Bonded in blood, life, and death," Sylena replied. "Sisters, forever."

"Sisters, forever."
Fren’s news brought them all back to the kitchen where they sat mulling over what this bit of information would do for them.

“You say you could not place the other man’s voice?” Jebodiah spoke his rasp almost raw with tension.

Fren shook his head watching the sadness in his father’s eyes. They had been long time friends with Gustav but now it seemed they could trust no one.

“We will need to be careful. Mirabella your mornings must not sway from Zelda’s shop. She was the one I worried about... not Gustav, but as he has signed on to the Governor’s Call anything is possible.....” Jebodiah rubbed at his face and cupped his chin with a look of sheer exhaustion creeping into the deep lines of his face. Mirabella wrapped her arms around her father and kissed his cheek. He smiled wearily at her.
Fren stood and walked to place his hands on the shoulders of Jebodiah and Mirabella, giving strength as he could.

Sylena watched feeling a momentary sense of loss until Mirabella reached across and grasped her hand. When she looked up to meet her eyes, she felt the warmth flood back in.

“You are my sister bonded in blood, in life, in death... remember that always, Sylena.” Mirabella spoke with a strength that seemed to flow out of her.

“We are four now, instead of three.” Fren nodded his agreement to his sister’s words and Jebodiah smiled over at her.

“Four will bind us well... especially as you learn to fight together.” Jebodiah rasped his voice less raw with the earlier tension. “Sylena will need the most training...” Looking toward Fren, he added, “only because she must build her strength so she must fight as the Guild will need from her. You are strong from your work here in the smithy, but I will put you through your paces. Be forewarned.” Fren nodded smiling back at his father.

Looking over at Mirabella he traced his finger from her temple down to her chin. “You my child have gifts beyond the wielding of a sword. Healing powers your mother passed to you... Zelda will draw those out unknowingly.” He smirked and patted Mirabella’s hand as her eyes grew wide. “You will learn the sword like the others but I expect Roen has already noted your stealth.” The quizzical glance she passed him had him chuckling. “No doubt he will tell you. That man keeps his thoughts locked deep, but I am sure he has noticed.”

“I don’t believe...”

“Mirabella you have always been able to slip in and out without others seeing. I have watched you myself.” His daughter shook her head tossing her unbound curls of auburn froth tumbling over her shoulders. “The faces of the others look astounded then hide their shock, but I have seen it.”

“Have I that stealth?” Fren asked a touch of envy lingering.

“You do, but not as powerful as your sister’s ability. You have been given more strength which she has not. Now is not the time to be envious, boy... that will break us apart. Do you understand me.” Jebodiah’s eyes bore like steel into his son’s and Fren nodded letting the envy slip like water off his back. He reached to place the hand that had been on Mirabella’s shoulder onto the clasped hands of the girls.

“No envy... only love.” He said looking strongly into his sister’s gaze.

“No envy, only love.” She repeated.

“Now then... time for a power charm, then it is off to bed with us all. No doubt we will need our rest for whatever is yet to come.”

The three stood and Mirabella guided Sylena up into their circle. With arms wrapped over each other’s shoulders and arms they leaned forward to touch their foreheads together.

“We are four and our four is one.” Jebodiah whispered, his voice rough like sandpaper.

“Four is one.” His children and Sylena whispered back.

In silence they stood there. Taking and giving strength to each other.

Then with a calmness they moved apart and headed off to their beds.
Endora could feel the presence of someone outside her hollow cave. The high ceiling of only one small opening had darkened from the clouds. Trees that surrounding her kept her in the depths of almost a swaddling of her mother's arms.
She wanted to see who was here but didn't want to be noticed at the same time.
The cloak she made for the chill of winter drapped across the cot. She put it on and covered her face and crept out of the cave. Careful not to disturb anything in site or out of site. Her newest addition to her only family was an owl. He watched her every move as she made her way to the opening of the road.

Younce startled by the hoot of an owl above him, but thought nothing more than that. An owl making his calling of the night.
However he did not expect to come across a black clothed unknown species. Male,female or anything else that he could only imagine out here in a voyage that he has now crossed. A territory that held secrets and mysteries all on it's own.
He coward against his wagon, afraid of what was about to come his way.

"I am alone. I am not here to hurt anyone." He didn't want to sound afraid but his words came out weak and shaky.
Ilfilio smiled at me as I stopped just behind him, my head down and resigned to my lot in life. "There, there boy. You and I will get on fine."

I looked up into my new master's eyes. Ilfilio visibly was struck dumb when he saw I was crying. He laid a gentle hard leather pad on my shoulder and patted kindly.

I am Eduard Rusptin and I am a man's attendant, bought and sold; only, my new master received me as a gift. We run from a Mage organization who call themselves the Sapphire Dragons. I'm not sure why my new master is running with Mortimer the Obscene (recently the ex-Underlord of all Bansbree) but he seems of a kind heart and I see plainly why he needs my services.

I run with them willing now, because if caught in these tunnels under the city, no one, not even the unwilling, are spared. My new master, Ilfilio, has power not shown. I felt the tingle of it; even through the hard leather attachments he has for hands. Lord Mortimer has not near the strength of magic that my new master has.

The tunnel we take opens on the other side of the river into Sidhelein country. I am to be an Elf slave all my days now. They say that Elves are enlightened folk, but I ne'er seen no enlightenment, ever.


"Hurry boy. Stop lagging." Jasper rasped, the hurried pace telling on his own lack of fortitude in this journey. He cuffed the back of my head to place emphasis on picking up speed.

Ilfilio slowed his own pace and stepped beside Mortimer's Doorman and loyal servant. "You lay hands upon my servant again and you won't have hands to abuse others with."

I couldn't believe my ears. My new master whispered so only Jasper could hear and I happened to be close enough to catch it. Lord Mortimer lead the way and never heard a thing. And after, Jasper sped his pace to fit between me and Morty. My master follows behind me. My legs burn and I can't run any more, but I must if'n I wish to live. Then I happen to stumble and as I feel myself fall I am scooped up with hard roughness. I'll have bruises on my ribs where those leather pads clamped on me, but I don't mind. My master carries me and he has no trouble keeping pace. I look up into his face as he carries me in his arms like a babe, and me nearly as tall as him. He has a strong face, for an Elf, that is. His bones may be fine, but his face has strength of character. There is honor there. His ears are in the forward attentive posture, but I don't think that means the same thing as it did with Morty. This Elf won't club me sensless to make a lesson remembered. But what in the seventy Horrors of Hell is he friending with Mortimer for?

It took about an hour of quick pacing, running mixed with fast walking, to get to the place where the tunnel steeped downward. The rock walls and floor were wet and slippery and Ilfilio put me down to make my own way. The pace slowed significant, and I found myself assisting my handless master down the steeper slopes. At one point, when I helped him up from a fall, he winked at me and smiled, as if we were out on a lark and having a day of fun. It made me feel, well, not sure how I felt. All confused with a bad but funny joke. Here I am picking up a full grown Elf, looking down on him, and he's winking at me. But me, I can't laugh, he is my master and I'm not here with him on my own idea. Still...

On the other side of the river the tunnel was just as treacherous and everyone ended up crawling up the slippery rocks. I lagged behind and tha's when I saw them. The gold gittery of many eyes in the shadow behind us. I tell you I didn't lag so far then. I was nearly crawling up Ilfilio's back before we leveled off in the final leg of the tunnel. The tunnel was rife with goblins. Thousands of 'em.

I was going to say when the bright of day glared into my eyes. The things happened I will never forget. Elves were ringed near the entrance of the cave. Jasper and Morty pushed away the wheel stone from the opening and stepped out into instant judgement. Ilfilio pushed me out into the clearing and we stood facing the group of twenty clad in shining black. I ne'er seen such a sight in my short life, but my master knelt to a knee with hands spread in supplication as I stood dumbstruck.


"You may wish to follow my lead, Eddie." I looked at him and I went down prostrate. I'm no fool. Full submission for my life is a good trade.

Then the center Elf stepped forward and spoke to us. I watched as Morty bowed before the leader, but he didn't kneel. Jasper did like me, he was face down in the dirt too and as scared as me.


"You treaspass upon your homeland, Mortimer Langster."

"How can I treaspass when, as you say, it is my homeland? And who in the seven hells are you?"

"We are the Sidhelein Council of the Obsidian Dragon Co-operative. I'm sure you have heard of us."

I laid amazed as I saw Morty kneel before the Elf. But more amazed still when he spoke his final words. "My pardon your Emminence. I..." The elven thief's head rolled right by my face. His expression was pure shock, but not fear. Morty was surprised by the suddenness of death. His blood sprayed over me as his body fell sideways.

Jasper stood and made to run back to the tunnel entrance but never got two steps before his body fell over the top of me. I closed my eyes and laid as still as I could. My death would be quick and I couldn't ask for more than that. But alas, it wasn't to be so. The weight of Jasper lifted from me and Ilfilio urged me to stand by lifting under my arm. "These are family, Eddie. You won't be hurt." And I stood shaking and watched as no less than six of the black clad Elves hugged and patted Ilfilio on the back with loud camaraderie. Then I saw the man. He had walked the halls of Langster house not a day ago. The house maids said he had an ill feel about him and was interested in the escape of that girl Morty the Deceased was so interested in. He stood apart, but I could tell he was an equal to these Elves. His bearing was quiet and I perceive no evil from him at all. He caught me watching him and he smiled. I quickly lowered my gaze as befit my station, but not before seeing him walking toward me.


"What is your name, Lad?"

I mumble my name and take a step backward, toward my new master.

"What's that? Do speak up and look at me when you speak to a freeman."

I looked up into a broad smile, even his green eyes glittered with mirth. "I-I-I'm Eduard, Sir."

"Well, Eduard, I bet you haven't eaten since this morning, have you?"

"N-n-no Sir."

"And cut out that sir business. My name is Rubian Gladsham."

He presented a hand as big as my head with the expectation that I shake it in greeting. And suddenly I understand what has happened. The SDG was merely a stimulus to get Mortimer back into the grasp of Elven justice. And Rubian and Ifilio were instruments to make sure he returned. And I, because I am now owned by...

"Eddie, I wish you to meet the Wizard who is going to give you back your free will."

"What?" This can't be. I've never had free will. I was born to a slave prostitute along the southside docks and sold into servitude at age five. My mother didn't even weep to see me go. I'm born into slavery. No free will is mine to claim.

"His proper name is Eduard, Ifi." I watched as my master and a Dwarf dressed in the same black garb as the Elves and Rubian stood before me.

"What is your full given name, Eduard? If you know it, of course."

"Sir Dwarf, my mother's owner named me Eduard Rusptin. I am nine years living as a slave at the High Solstace."

The Dwarf Wizard nodded his head with knowing and said , "Which means you were born into slavery sometime between the Spring Eqinox and the Summer Solstace. So you could well be nine years old right now."

"I suppose so, Sir."

"I am going to remove the binding spell from you and then you will decide where you will go."

I looked at my master and a great dread spread over me. "Do I have to? Please Master, don't you want me anymore?"

Then of all the things Ilfilio could have done, he leaned down so we looked square eye to eye. "I still need someone to assist me with the routine things of living." He looked down at his fake hard leather pads he had for hands. "I won't have an equal attend me when they are given no choice. If you wish to attend me, it will be your will to do so, not mine or the binding of any magic."

I shook like a quaking aspen's leaf in the breeze. My stomach felt like it was a giant wad of writhing snakes. I tried to speak but though I opened my mouth, words wouldn't form around my dry clenched throat.

"Shall we begin, Eduard Rusptin?"

All I could do was nod my head in affirmation. The Dwarf spoke his mystical words and I saw the power arc from his fingers to unlock the magical manacles around my neck, wrists, and ankles. But I didn't feel any different.

"Ilfi, tell the lad to do something."

"Boy! Kiss my feet!"

I nearly jumped out of my skin when my master demanded such servience in so harsh a voice. But, instead of prostrating before him and slobbering all over his boots, I stepped away from him. It was then when I felt the soaring of my heart. I laughed with such joy and my feet and legs jumped me around in such a glorious dance that everyone in that glade stopped what they were doing and watched me. When I had exhausted myself, Rubian brought me a plate of cooked roots and fowl. He, a freeman, served me!

"It is your choice now, whom you serve. But, don't pledge your service lightly. As a slave you had no honor. As a free man, all you have is your honor."

"I cannot return to Bansbree as a freed slave and hope to remain free for very long. I willingly choose to serve the Elf who has freed me. I will serve him because I owe him more than my life and I will serve him until he no longer needs me or I am called away to meet my true fate."

Ilfilio the Generous and Merciful stood behind me and heard my speech. He sat on the log next to me and smiled. "And, Eduard, I am glad to accept your service, but only as long as it is freely given. We are friends and equals; although, you have some maturing to do still. Regard me as your teacher for as long as you wish to learn from me."

The sun set upon us in that glade. The bodies and the heads of the dead were taken a ways from the camp and burned to ash and consecrated so that evil wouldn't use them against the good. The wheeled stone was placed before the opening of the tunnel and it was then I remembered the glittery eyes in the darkness of the tunnels.

"Master Ilfilio..."

"Please, Eduard. Ifi is okay. We are friends, afterall."

"I have to tell you about the goblins--Ilfi."

"Oh the ones in the tunnels under Bansbree? Yes, we know they are there. But, it isn't time yet to worry about them. Instead, we must worry about the goblin bands encroaching along the borders of the Dunsland and the Sidhelein into the human lands."

"But..."

Ilfilio smiled at my doubt. "Sleep beside me, Eduard. I will sleep in the midst of my brothers. We will be safe."

So it was we settled down and I laid beneath the night sky a free man. Sometime before dawn, I was awaken when a runner came into the camp and reported movements along the Sidhelein roads.

"A woman and two children travel along the main path toward Meleda Poulos's home. The girl with her is Cassandra, the girl the SDG is searching for."

We broke camp without eating. The word was we would meet the trio at Meleda's home and make a safe passage into the SDG camp further north where the Goblin bands were becoming more than a mere nuisance. This way I learned that the Obsidian Dragons and the Sapphire Dragons worked toward the safety of all free lands. Elves, Men and Dwarves were joined in a common cause and the war pending had nothing to do with ill feelings between Dwarves and Elves.


Younce listened and watched as shadows took a clearer form. There was something mysterious about the person in the cloak. Why would anyone be out here in the middle of nowhere?

"These are not safe times," he said. "Orcs are in the area."

"They won't bother me."

The feminine voice came as much of a surprise as the certainity of it. He was afraid of orcs, and she did not seem to be concerned. What are you, and what do you want? he wondered.

"You are welcome to my camp for the night. I have some travel fare if you are hungry."

* * *

Elric left the Great Tree just before dawn. He was worried. Orcs and goblins were preparing for war while his people stayed in their underground world, refusing to get involved in someone elses problems.

He knew very well that a great many more mages and wizards were needed to defend against the orcs and goblins. The magic wielded by men had been fading for many generations, which meant the elves were the only answer left.

When he arrived at the smithy, he saw Jebodiah getting his things set up for the day. Jebodiah looked up. "Where have you been?"

"I have been wasting my time in trying to persuade the Dwarf Council to prepare for a conflict with the orcs and goblins. They prefer to ignore the outside world and pretend that nothing can affect them in their underground kingdom.

"Did you make the weapons?"

"It was not easy to do it secretly," Jebodiah admitted. "But they are all ready."

"How is Sylena doing in her training?"

"From what Roen says, she takes to it like a duck to water."

Elric nodded his head. "I'm not surprised. Her father was a mighty mage and warrior."

Jebodiah stared at Elric. "I thought her father was a farmer."

"He thought it necessary at the time to conceal her identity under a geis. There were many threats against him and his family. Her geis will disappear on her eighteenth birthday, which is this week. Sylena is an elf, and her power will match that of her father."

"An elf? Was her father a member of the Sidhelein Council of the Obsidian Dragon Co-operative?"

"Yes, I won't be around for the rest of the day."

"Who is going to tell Sylena the truth of her heritage?"

"I will talk with her uncle today."

"Her uncle?"

"I will be back this evening." Elric said a spell and vanished.
Jebodiah was still staring at the spot where Elric had vanished when Mirabella slipped up beside him. As was often the case, he had not heard her approach. A smile played at his lips when he heard her awed whisper, “Was that...”

“Elric, yes. It was.”

“I thought I was seeing things.” She glanced to the spot where he'd been, then back to her father.

He looked into the clear blue silver of his daughter’s eyes as he asked, “What did you hear?”

“Nothing. He vanished even before I fully realized you were even talking to someone.” Jebodiah stared a moment longer, then nodded. His daughter had never been able to lie to him. Her eyes gave her away, pitching into a swirling fog if she even tried. The glittering silver held steady and that reassured him. He did not want the children discussing Elric’s words before Sylena could be told.

“I expect him to return tonight. Perhaps you could make something special with Zelda today.” He reached over to clasp one of her hands and she gave him a strengthening smile.

"Who to return tonight?" Fren asked sidling up beside his sister and giving her a brotherly love shove before clasping her to his hip in a quick one armed hug.

Jebodiah looked up to watch Sylena slip in quietly behind the others. He smiled warmly at her. His eyes still on her, he said, "Elric will return later tonight."

Sylena stopped at the mention of Elric's name and Mirabella reached back to take her hand pulling her into their circle.

"He has news of importance...." Looking sternly at Fren who was about to speak, he went on, "no need to ask questions now. Take time and learn patience. What comes will change things... of that I am certain. How we take it into our hearts, is what will make us stronger... or break us, remember that." His eyes rested on each of his young brood.

With solemn faces, the others nodded their understanding.

"Now. It is time to be getting on with our day."

Fren moved off to gather his tools and set the fire in the forge. It would take time to get it up to temperature. Later would be grueling and heavy with heat, but now with the early morning things seemed lighter.

Mirabella watched her brother move with a skill that amazed her. She smiled over at him and he gave her a salute. Then she leaned in and kissed her father's roughened cheek. Giving Sylena's hand another reassuring squeeze, she turned and headed out the front entrance and off towards Zelda's bakery.

Sylena stood and watched Fren a moment, then dragged her gaze back to Jebodiah who was still watching her. Though his face was gristled and his voice rough as dry husk, he had kind eyes and a good heart. He reached over and patted her hand.

"You best be going too. I dare say, Roen won't be forgiving if you are late. I will send Fren and Mirabella later. They'll bring lunch for you and Roen. You can tell him that and you best tell him to come tonight as well. I am thinking Elric will want to speak with him as well."

Sylena gave another solemn nod then moved to gather her things before slipping out the side entrance.

Staying true to the promise he made to his brother, Jeno didn't release Dorte from her bonds before two days away from Bansbree. In fact, he went further with his promise and didn't instruct Anez to release Dorte until the end of the third day's travel. "...See if she will be willing to help you prepare the evening meal."

Anez looked at Jeno slack jawed. Her husband didn't seem to notice her amazement however, as he'd turned and walked away to tend to the mules and bed them down. She shook her head in silent refusal to even consider asking Dorte to help with the evening chores. She was with them against her will and could react in the most unpleasant of ways, if given opportunity. No, Anez wouldn't suggest Dorte do anything that might allow her to poison them all, or give her opportunity to slit their throats while they slept.

"Dorte, Dear. I am going to come in now and free you from your tethers. All I ask is that you don't do anything rash. Okay Dear?" Anez took in a deep breath and hoped Dorte wouldn't notice how her hands trembled. "We are three days gone from Bansbree, the rear scouts of this train have reported Goblin and Ogre sightings. So please bekieve that to return to Bansbree alone would be ultimate folly." Anez paused next to Dorte. Her sister-in-law watched her silently. Anez couldn't gage how she would react once her bonds were cut. "Okay Dorte, First your feet and legs. I have warm water to wash where the flesh is raw, and salve too." Anez cut the knot on the leather strap and freed Dorte's legs and feet. Dorte laid very still.

"Dear, I'm going to cut the strap binding your hands." Dorte shifted her body so that Anez had a better angle to cut through the leather. Anez hesitated, not sure if this little helpful act was a promise of good behavior or just Dorte's way of speeding up her ability to enact viscious revenge. Anez cut through the strap and waited with bated breath. Dorte sat up and rubbed her raw wrists.

"You said you had water and salve."

"Yes. By the cook fire." Anez backed out of the wagon and waited to assist Dorte. After a few moments Dorte eased out of the wagon. Anez caught her elbow and steadied her as the big woman's legs didn't want to hold her weight.

Anez was dishing up the children's dinner when Jeno finally reappeared. Dorte was sitting at the make shift table and eating. She watched his approach, but try as he might, he couldn't make himself look her in the eye.

"What was the word from the scouts this evening, Dearest?" Anez watched Dorte and her husband as he chose to sit at the table as far from his sister-in-law as possible. "They killed a goblin about a quarter mile from camp. I got third watch tonight. All the men are assigned so the watches will be doubled. The blighters are getting brave to be so close to the train."

The rest of dinner passed in silence. Even the children were subdued. Dorte declined returning to sleep inside the wagon, Anez helped her set up a bed roll between the wagon and cook fire. She and Jeno retired under their normal place under the wagon.

~~~
~~~


Dorte looked up at the stars unable to sleep. The soft murmuring had ceased and she knew Jeno and Anez were finally asleep.The first watch had given way to the second when she finally made her move. Dorte took one of the blankets that had made up her bed and wrapped utensils and a little food in it. she arranged the rolled blanket/pack diagonally over one shoulder and under the opposite arm. She then "borrowed" Jeno's short sword and a cleaver from Anez's kitchen tray. Before departing, she arranged the remaining blankets to look like she slept. She hoped Jeno wouldn't look close and think she had decided to remain with them.

It was easy slipping out of the circle of farm wagons and sleeping families. Everyone was watching for something to come in, not go out. Dorte hated to leave like this. Anez had shown her kindness if not mercy. Jeno was simply a coward on several levels and had allowed himself to be used by Gus. She grit her teeth as anger welled and blood flushed her face hot. Gus would pay for this deceit. He was with that trollop, she was sure of it. But most of all, she had a duty to get back to. Her oath to the Obsidian Dragons came before her marital concerns. In a way, Gus had done her a favor. He thought her well away from the city, so he wouldn't be looking out for her. And, on her way back to Bansbree she would be able to scout and report on the movements of the Ragged Fang Goblin tribe and Crimson Claw Ogre confederation who'd recently joined forces.

She could make good time alone. The wagons took three days to travel what she guessed to be about a day and a night if she didn't run into any trouble. She should make the South Gate before night fall of the next day.

The three fugitives sped along the deserted road. Most of the other travellers were well ahead of them. Several times during the next two days, Dorita’s sharp ears picked up distant sounds approaching and she motioned to Cassandra and Shivers to move into the undergrowth. She did not want anyone to see them and report back to Mortimer.

It was lucky that she had such acute hearing. Usually, a cart or group of weary travellers would appear soon after and the three of them would lie low until Dorita told them it was safe to get back onto the road. But, on one occasion, an outrider was followed by a troop of armed men who thundered past. Just as the friends were about to return to the road, a second smaller troop galloped round a bend in the road and almost caught them.

After that, Dorita was extra-vigilant. On the first night, they slept under the roots of a huge old oak tree about 500 metres away from the road. As the second night grew dark, Dorita led them, weary and tense, to a dense clump of thick ferns under a stand of tall poplars. A symphony of animal and night bird calls rose and fell.

“We must rest for a few hours and start again before daybreak.” Dorita picked her way deftly under the ferns to a shallow dip beneath one of the trees. “Try not to damage the plants. We don’t want to leave a trace of where we have been.” Cassandra followed Dorita and Shivers brought up the rear.

“How much farther is it to Mistress Meleda’s, Dorita?” Cassandra propped herself against the tree trunk and made herself comfortable. Dorita’s brow furrowed as she unwrapped a loaf she took from her knapsack. Cassandra handed apples to the others.

“We still have about half a day’s travel, depending on how much traffic is on the road.” Dorita sliced a chunk of bread from the loaf and handed it to the girl. Shivers took some cheese from his pack and shared it out.

“You two get some rest and I will keep watch for the first few hours.” He rewrapped the cheese, returned it to the sack and took a few swigs from his leather flagon before making himself comfortable. Dorita nodded and she and Cassandra bedded down to get some shut-eye. It will do him no harm to think that I am asleep. Dorita lay with her eyes closed, her senses turned for any unnatural sounds.

About an hour and half passed and she was just beginning to relax when she sensed the stealthy approach of someone through the trees. As she sat up she put her finger to her lips and Shivers swallowed his intended remark. They sat transfixed as the muffled sounds grew louder. They held their breath as the sounds appeared to almost fade away. A brief silent pause and then the sounds drew close again. Their mouths parched with the fear of impending discovery.
Elric stood just at the border of a vast forest just beyond the Sidhelein River. The elves camp would be toward the center of the forest, but he didn't consider it polite to just pop in. He didn't see any scouts, but he knew Dinrosiel would never leave a camp unguarded.

Elric moved slowly into the forest. He walked only a short distance when an elf dressed in green and black stepped out from behind a tree.

"You have the password?" she asked in the elven language.

"The moon shines even upon the wicked," Elric answered in elven.

The woman laughed. She quickly covered her laughter by clearing her throat. She stared at Elric and said, "Please forgive me. Your speech startled me."

"And your beauty like that of the moon startles me such that I will remember nothing else." Elric spoke only the truth. Dwarves were known for their stubbornness and strength. Elves were known for their wisdom and beauty.

Still she seemed to blush, which he had never seen an elf do. "I am in your debt," she replied.

The customs of the elves were strange, but then so were those of dwarves and even more so those of men. "Attend me until your debt is satisfied."

She appeared to sigh in relief, then she took a whistle of bone from her tunic and blew it three times. A tall elf appeared from some nearby bushes. She spoke to him so rapidly that Elric could only catch a few words: "watch" and "danger."

She looked at Elric and looked nervous. "The camp will know you are coming. They will not be expecting me."

"I will explain that I asked for you to attend me. I am Elric and you are?"

"Ithilethiel," she replied.

He nodded his head. Like the moon indeed. He held out his hand, and she took it. Instantly, they stood in a large clearing. He released her hand.

The camp filled the clearing and spilled into the forest all around. Ithilethiel looked nervous as she waited alongside of Elric. Dinrosiel walked quickly to meet them. He had a smile for Elric and a questioning look for Ithilethiel. "Well come, Elric, I expected you days ago."

"The dwarves on the council are old and blind to anything beyond their safe abodes. My arguments proved fruitless with them."

"I have some ideas that might break their intransigence," Dinrosiel replied.

"It worries me that three mortal enemies are working together," Elric explained. "Orc armies have always failed in the past because the clans could never work together, and they ended up eating one another."

Dinrosiel clapped his hand on Elric's shoulder. "You look hungry, and I know that your discourse may take most of the day."

Elric shook his head. "A meal would be good, and I will try to be brief."

After the meal, Elric and Dinrosiel walked together in the forest with Ithilethiel trailing behind. "So what happened between you and Ithilethiel?"

After Elric explained, Dinrosiel said, "She has a very high sense of honor. She would consider her laughter to be an insult to you as a person, a mage, as well as my friend.

"I agree with you that Orcs, Ogres, and Goblins working together is not possible outside of something or someone forcing them together. Their natural inclinations are to fight amongst themselves and with one another. I have sent some of our people to search for information. I expect to hear from some of them soon."

"I wanted to speak of your brother's daughter, Vesta."

Dinrosiel stopped. His face looked blank, but his eyes gave away the deep hurt inside.

"Belegon never doubted that you could keep his daughter safe. His fear was that those who wished her dead would do everything in their power to bring that about, which would bring death to you and many other elves. He asked me to hide Vesta and tell no one until she came into her power."

Dinrosiel stopped in her tracks and grasped Elric's arms tightly. "She lives?"

Eric nodded his head. Dinrosiel embraced Elric in a tight hug. Then he pulled back. "I and my family owe you a debt that can never be repaid."

"There are no debts between friends--only blessings," Elric answered.

* * *

When Ithilethiel laughed because of the mage's horrible pronunciation, she was mortified at herself. Then when Elric named her beautiful, she was astonished for she heard the truth in his voice.

She was an albino. "Moon-cursed" was the name many people called her from an early age. She felt like an outcast among her own people. Dinrosiel was one of the few elves who treated her normally. She was mortified that she had brought dishonor to him by her showing of disrespect to one of his guests.

Elric had also surprised her by offering her a way to regain her honor. Guests among her people were attended to so that they were welcome, but also most outsiders knew nothing of their customs and needed to be kept from trouble. Elric did not not need to have anyone attend to him. She took his invitation as a way to honor him as well as regain her honor.

His detailed explanation to Dinrosiel almost put her to sleep. She had heard of dwarves being long-winded but to experience it first hand was beyond description.

She trailed Elric and Dinrosiel into the woods at a distance from which she could hear nothing. She was startled when Dinrosiel suddenly embraced Elric, and she was stunned Dinrosiel dropped to his knees. She started to run toward them, but then Elric was on his knees as well.

Ithilethiel stopped and almost quit breathing. She had heard tales of a blessing ceremony, but never seen one. She was close enough now that she could hear their voices.

"My brother Dinrosiel has suffered so much sorrow in his days. Bring now blessings overflowing into his life and that of his people. Bring joy never ceasing and laughter without end."

Silence filled the air. It seemed as if even the birds had stopped to listen. "My brother Elric has been such a blessing to me and my people. Shower blessings on him and his people."

Tears fell from her eyes. The powerful emotion in their voices touched her deeply. She fell to the ground and began to wail.

"Speak," Dinrosiel commanded.

"I suffered so much pain. I never felt that I belonged. My appearance is my curse, and I am a curse to my people. I allowed an orc wizard to bind me so that I could be his spy."

"Your life is forfeit," Dinrosiel said in a voice filled with sadness.

"I will removed the spell and bind her to me," Elric said.

"I--," Ithilethiel began.

"It is no longer your choice," Dinrosiel interrupted. "Can you break an orcish spell?"

Ithilethiel began to gasp for air. She lifted her hand toward Elric, then darkness overcame her.

She felt lips pressed to her and hair pressed against her face. She opened her eyes to see Elric's face. She was breathing normally.

She looked at Dinrosiel. "You died," he explained, "and Elric brought you back." He turned to Elric make it a life binding spell."

Ithilethiel began to shake as she heard Elric's voice. She understood none of the words.

"How do you feel?" Dinrosiel asked.

"I deserve death, but I must do as Elric desires."

"Remove all your clothing and follow at a distance," Elric commanded.
"I thought you said Elric would return tonight?" Fren said as he took another helping of stew and another hunk of bread.

"He will come... I trust him..."

"But he is a mage..."

"Mage or not, he can be trusted. I am sure he may have met with some challenges along his way. With the way of things, I expect there is much to be careful of once you are out beyond the bounds of the city walls. He will come... we just do not know when." Jebodiah passed the ladle to the stew to Roen, who nodded a thanks and took another healthy serving.

Mirabella passed the bread across to him. "I am glad you came for supper anyway, Roen. I dare say, the slop they serve at the tavern is... not so good."

Roen met her gaze and let a smile slip to his lips. "You are a fine cook, Mirabella." His words brought a blush to her cheek and she dipped her head back to her own bowl and bread.

Jebodiah watched the exchange and felt the pull of knowing his children were growing. There was a sadness mixed with pride and he let it flow over him. His children were his pride and joy. Looking to celebrate that he asked, "Tell me of your day, Mirabella."

Her eyes lifted and she smiled. "Oh, father such a day as it was. Zelda had her hands full. A group of men intent on becoming soldiers came in and raised quite a ruckus. Seems they were celebrating having signed up to the Governor's Call and they were making merry. They got hungry for her pastries and breads and kept trying to sample them when she was not looking. She left me to bake... so I was able to make something special for tonight."

"Well, where is it then." Fren pressed as he wiped the last of his stew up with his chunk of bread.

"We will have it when Elric arrives." Jebodiah said calmly.

"And what makes it so special?" Fren mumbled around his stew.

Mirabella smiled and looked to her father before telling him. "It contains special herbs and charms to ward off evil spirits and keep prying ears from hearing our tales."

"You can do that?" Fren had stopped his eating to gaze carefully at his sister. "You are not making that up?"

Mirabella shook her head. "It is one of mama's recipes." Her voice held awed pride.

Fren shrugged. "So what does this Elric have to tell us that is so very important that we must all be here." He glanced at Roen and rubbed at his shoulder already feeling the afternoon's training settle into his joints. The day had been rough. Roen had pushed them all and he could not help thinking something was about to change. Roen wanted them ready and soon.

"I told you this morning, my boy, not to ask questions. Elric will provide the answers when he arrives."

A loud crash rushed up at them from the stairs and each fell silent. Roen motioned for silence and moved with fluidity as he grabbed up his sword and moved toward the top of the stairs. Below all had fallen eerily silent.

Jebodiah moved with the ease of a much younger man as he took up his own sword. He motioned for the younger ones to stay put and made his way over to Roen. Together they crept down the stairs.

The smithy was dark. The night collected the shadows and cast the place in pitch blackness. At the bottom of the stairs Roen tapped Jebodah's shoulder and motioned him to go around the outer perimeter of the room. He nodded then moved on careful feet.

He doubted it was Elric. He would have called out by now, but who else would have gotten in. The doors were barred and all had been set to rights before going up for the meal. Jebodiah had seen to it himself.

Upstairs, the girls had moved to the window and strained to see down into the alley that ran along the back of the shops. Sylena pointed to a dark shape that seemed to be hugging the shadows. They motioned for Fren who had moved to hover at the top of the steps.

"What do you make of that?" Sylena whispered.

Fren looked and caught a glimpse of something, but not enough. "Someone was spying."

The girls trembled and huddled together. This darkness that clung to the night was not just the evening’s usual shadows and haunts; there was strange goings on and it was advancing in on them whether they were ready or not.

Moments later Roen and Jebodiah climbed up the stairs. Jebodiah fell into his chair and Sylena and Mirabella rushed to his side. Roen moved to the window by Fren.

"Something was out there." Fren whispered roughly.

"Yes." was all Roen said.

"Whatever it was looked like they were trying to break in...." Jebodiah said a little shakily. Mirabella handed him a goblet of water. "We will need to be vigilant. All of us. Everywhere. Someone suspects us."

Fren knelt down before his father and they took comfort in their closeness. Roen watched the shadows knowing he would not be leaving any time soon.
Have you ever traveled the forests within the Sidhelein borders? Better yet, have you traveled the Elvish paths in the company of the Sidhelein? The stories told by those who have experienced such, are pale in comparison to the actual experience. I could never describe the sense of never tiring, yet at the same time knowing that exhaustion dominated my every step. Magic was thick about us. I trotted to an ethereal tune that wasn't heard by my ears but filled my mind and compelled my limbs.

I felt nothing but the exhilaration of the run. I didn't even consciously think of the toll upon my body. Ilfilio's confident smile pulled me along by his side and the pace was steady and mile eating. Even so, it was mid morning when our troup, with the appearance of an additional Dwarf mage and his Elven slave, arrived at the perimeter of our destination. The tune continued to fill us with strength and well being as we stopped and gathered around the black clad leader who'd beheaded Mortimer without a second thought. He was the source of the spell. Rubian handed me a drought of pure ecstasy. The liquid was as quicksilver and tasted like nothing I could ever describe. It was sweet, but not overpowering, it was intoxicating, but only as joy can be intoxicating, and it was rejuvenating. As I swallowed my cold, hollow cheeks swelled and warmed and my sight, which had grown blurry, sharpened. Then the ethereal melody faded and I stood with full use of my limbs as if I'd only taken a slow stroll through the moon lit wood.

"We will collect the Ward of the SDG from Meleda and continue until night fall." Dinrosiel turned and approached the thatched roofed hut as a single emmissary. We stood silent as the morning breeze in the shadows of a magical veil. Yet, when Meleda stepped into her doorway, I had the distinct impression she saw every man jack of us.

"Mi'Lord Dinrosiel, I have been expecting you. Please, share a cup and a sit while we discuss why you have come." The words were strange to me. She waited for our arrival, yet, we hadn't known of our journey until the very moment we had started. Meleda wore the scarves of the gypsy and she obviously had the true sight.

I spied a boy looking out a window and I recognized the girl Mortimer had captured and then lost, costing him his life. Master Dinrosiel was inside the hut for an uncomfortably long time. When he emerged, he was alone.

"We have done all that we can. Now, we travel South and seek the center of our power. The gypsies are destined to take the Northern road unaided." The Obsidian Dragon Lord nodded toward both Dwarven mages, the one who'd arrived moments before our trek and the one who had released me from the bonds of slavery.

"Elric, command Ithilethiel as you will, but remember, be true to your oaths and our combined strengths will win the day. May the road travelled bring reward."

As one The two Dwarves and the naked elven maid turned to continue along the northern road toward the Sapphire Dragon encampment. Information exchanged between Elric and Dinrosiel. I felt the twinings of magical tendrils in the sending, but for the raising of the hair on my arms I knew nothing more than that. So it is that I run again. Exhaustion exists but does not hinder my ability to keep up. I can see the signs of fatigue upon Ilfilio. His eyes are glazed and his cheeks hollow. I cannot imagine how I must look to him. Yet, I know at the end of our journey there will be the quicksilver drought to rejuvenate us all.
The silence stretched into minutes. Younce relaxed a little, lulled by the unthreatening demeanour of Endora.

“Thank you, stranger, but I have no need of the shelter of your camp.” Younce made to protest. A woman alone could be prey to the terrors on the loose. Endora shook her head.

“I have ways of concealment to protect myself, and there is no danger close by.” With that, she seemed to melt into the forest behind her. Younce was left alone on the road, once more, to puzzle over the strange maiden.

…oooOooo…

Endora headed back towards her cave, content that Younce would not disturb her there. His fear had wrapped him like a cloak. He would not be leaving his camp to follow her. A hint of movement in the undergrowth nearby led her to doubt this belief for a moment. She crouched down closer to the ground, listening. Nothing stirred. She had resumed her homeward journey when a sudden jolt of awareness cut through her mind. Retracing her steps in stealth, she paused again.

Scant yards apart, Dorisa and Endora stayed motionless as they probed the surrounding area for malevolent thoughts. Their minds touched briefly and understanding quieted their racing hearts. Warmth and compassion passed between them before Endora moved away, assured that Dorisa and her charges were intent on other things. The tension drained from Dorisa as she leant back against the tree.

“What do you think that was?” Shivers’ face was a mask of concern.

“Just some creature of the forest.” Dorisa felt no need to reveal the existence of the timid Endora. “I have soothed their worries and sent them on their way.” Shivers marvelled at the old woman. Their time together had proved that appearances could be very deceptive. “I will take over the watch. You will need to get some sleep before we set out for Meleda’s in the morning.” The boy did as he was told. He was weary of being the man of the group and yearned for the life he had fled, in the relative safety of Bansbree.

Dorisa mulled over the encounter with Endora. She sent up a silent prayer that the young woman would not perish in the conflict ahead. The familiar night sounds of the forest soothed her and before long, she saw the glow of dawn and shook the others awake.

They made good time and encountered no one as they surged towards their goal. Meleda was working in the garden when they arrived. She bustled them indoors and settled them at the table as she and Dorisa caught up with what had been happening in their lives. In no time at all, she had plates of food and goblets of mead on the table before them.

A commotion in the woods outside brought all four to their feet. Shivers flew to the window and a look of delighted surprise lit up his face.

“It’s Elric, the Mage! And there are elves with him!” Meleda stepped to the doorway to welcome the lone approaching figure.

“It’s Dinrosiel, the leader of the elves. I have been expecting him.” She waved the elf inside, greeting him warmly. The niceties were observe and he joined them at the table. It took some time to exchange all the information that they had for each other. Meleda persuaded the elf to leave Cassandra in her care for a while longer. Dinrosiel had no doubt that, for the time being, the girl would be as safe in the forest with these two remarkable sisters as she would be anywhere else.

“Take good care of her, my dear friends.” Dinrosiel got up and hugged each of the women warmly. “The fate of the world that we know may rest on her young shoulders.” They said their farewells and Meleda watched as he re-joined Elric and the other elves. With a final wave, he and his men melted back into the woods and Meleda closed the door.

“May providence protect us all.” The others nodded at these words. “And especially you, my dear.” She laid a gentle hand on Cassandra’s shoulder. “You will need all the strength and determination you can muster if you are to fulfil your destiny.” The resolute look on Cassandra’s face left Meleda in no doubt. The girl was a fighter, and no mistake.
When Elric removed the Orc spell from Ithilethiel, it was if a heavy fog lifted from her mind. In that moment, she wanted to embrace death. Elric's binding spell took that desire from her mind.

She was mortified when he commanded her to remove her clothes. She was allowed to keep her sandals. Upon their return to camp, no one would look at her as if she no longer existed.

The camp was quickly taken down, and they were on the move. Elric walked at the front, talking with Dinrosiel. Then he drifted toward the back of the travelers.

He said, "Are you wondering why I intervened and enslaved you?"

She nodded her head but did not answer, for fear that her voice might give away too much.

"A spell that I will carry out later requires the blood of an elf. . . ."

His gaze caught her, and she shivered. "And a dwarf and a human. It is not a spell to be taken lightly. Dinrosiel would not allow one of his people to take part in the spell. He is not happy that I will be using you in this manner. He has asked that you be given a choice, Ithilethiel, to serve me, or I can transfer my bond to him."

She shivered. Elric's plan must be very bad for Dinrosiel to make such an offer. "I have no honor left. It is better to leave this place and never return."

Elric handed her a white tunic. "So long as you are not among the elves, you can wear this."

She slid it over her head, then he took her hand. She stood in an alley. The unexpected transition to a city caught her off guard, and she almost gasped out loud. Elric kept the grip on her hand as they approached the door to a smithy. He put out his hand, and suddenly, they were inside.

A small ball of light appeared in his hand. She saw his mouth move but heard no sounds.

* * *

Jebodiah heard Elric's soft voice say, "I am here. Bring everyone."

He went to each room to awaken everyone. Then they all went down the stairs. He was surprised to see Elric standing next to an Elven maiden.

Elric said, "Bring out the weapons you forged for me."

Jebodiah broke open the top of a large crate. Everyone gasped at the luminous glow that filled the room when the lid was removed.

"These weapons," Elric explained, "will never dull; they cannot be broken. Also if you have any magical ability, you can use it through the weapon. Sylena, take one of the swords."

Everyone watched her as she moved forward and pulled a glowing sword from the crate.

"Now strike this rod of iron," said Elric, pointing to it.

She hit it, and the iron was cut in half.

"Everyone select your weapons." Elric began to hand out leather coverings for the various weapons.

When all the weapons were dispersed, Elric said, "Sylena, your father asked me to protect you because of the many enemies that he faced."

Jebodiah stared as Sylena began to shimmer. Then she came into full focus. She looked much the same, except now her Elven features were visible.

Mirabella gasped, "You are an elf and even more beautiful than before."

Fren just stared without making a sound.

"Your father's name was Belegon and yours is Vesta. Dinrosiel is your uncle, and he wants you to join him."

"I want to come with you," Mirabella said.

"As do I," Fren added.

Mirabella looked at Roen who shook his head. "My path is with Elric."

And they all looked at Jebodiah awaiting his answer.
Jebodiah looked at all the shiny, young faces and felt his heart squeeze with pride. His children were a strong bond, they shared that bond with him and with Sylena. She was part of their circle, now. Blood was strong, but so was the love of friendship and she had both. He gave a deep sigh.

“I knew this day would come.” His smile was weary. “I am an old man. My part is done. Now it is time for you to carry on.”

“Oh, Papa.” Mirabella whispered as she rushed to his side and crouched before him. He laid his hand on her check and smiled warmly.

“I have raised you as I knew best. Now it is time. Soon you will be of an age where the decision is yours. The time has come, earlier than I would wish, but still... you and Fren must decide what you want to do. Know my love is with you always....”

Fren moved to stand by his father and placed his hands on the shoulders of sister and father. For a moment they stood in silence.

“If we go.... what will you tell others....” Fren asked his voice laced with concern.

That, my son, is easy. I will say I changed my mind about sending you both away.”

Mirabella glanced at Roen when he cleared his throat. Raising a brow she waited for him to speak.

“It will be easy to explain...and things will go smoothly for Jebodiah.”

Elric nodded agreement. “Jebodiah will be able to go about his business and all suspicion will fall away.”

“Truth?” Mirabella questioned looking to each man in turn. They all nodded. Looking to Fren she asked, “What say you?”

Fren nodded. “We have all trained hard and well. Roen has done his job well.” He glanced at the swordsman and Roen shared a rare smile. “We are ready.”

“Then we will go on the next part of our journey. Sylena came here for a reason. She is bound to us now. We are sisters in friendship.” Her gaze searched the still shocked girl who stood touching the tips of her ears in wonder. “Sylena?”

The girl seemed to snap back to them and found comfort in Mirabella’s gaze. They shared a smile as Mirabella she reached her hand out. Sylena grasped it.

Fren shifted his hand from his sister’s shoulder to take Sylena’s other hand.

“You will go then... together and stay together. That will be your strength.” Jebodiah told them.

“And what of everyone else?” Fren asked looking to Roen, Elric and the quiet Elven maiden.

“We will all travel at first together. Ithilethiel and I will go ahead. You three will travel with Roen to the edge of the forest beyond the city gates. We will find you there.”

“When do we go?” Mirabella asked looking anxiously at her father.

“Nightfall tomorrow.” Elric reassured her. “I will not rip you from your father without giving you some time. Ithilethiel and I will go before first light. Until then...” He looked to Sylena. “You have questions. I will try to provide answers as best I can, but your uncle Dinrosiel will know more if you can only wait to see him.”

Sylena’s voice was shaky, but she forced herself to speak through the fog that seemed to settle in her mind. “I have questions, yes... but I am not sure what to ask first.”

“Then waiting may be best.” Looking to the others, he added, “You best return to your beds. Tomorrow will be a trial.”

“What of tomorrow?” Mirabella looked to her father. She wanted desperately to stay with her father for as long as this last day would allow.

Jebodiah patted her hand. “You will need to go to Zelda. Tell her I have insisted on you leaving. I am the father, she will not question it. In fact, I will bet she will send you home with fresh bread and her blessing.”

“When we meet later I will give you more details.” Elric continued his voice low. “I do not trust the city. Even waiting another day could be unwise, but I think it is necessary.”

Jebodiah gathered his children and Sylena to him and ushered them off to bed. They went reluctantly each kissing him on the check.

When they were gone, the men sat in silence. Jebodiah looked to Ithiletheil.

Sensing his discomfort, Elric told Ithiletheil to go rest. When she was gone, Jebodiah leaned in and asked for more details. Sending his children was going to be hard for him but he knew it was important. His family had much to offer and they would help protect Sylena.

At full dark the next night, Roen met with Fren, Mirabella, and Sylena near the forge. "Have you made your goodbyes."

They all nodded their heads.

"There is no knowing when or even if you will return here. We are traveling light, but if there is anything you need, this is your last opportunity to get it." He looked at them expectantly, and when no one moved, he nodded his head.

"Elric and Ithilethiel are nearby. Ithilethiel will not be wearing clothing. Do not ask them questions. Elric will bring us into the Elven camp where you three will meet with Dinrosiel. He has something planned for each of you. We all have a part to play in this coming conflict. Remember to stand strong in your mind."

Elric and Ithilethiel emerged from the shadows. "Gather near me," Elric said. As soon as they all came near, the smithy vanished, and they were outside at the edge of a large clearing.

Elric led them in the direction of a large tent. Several elves in black leather stood guarding the entrance to the tent. At Elric's arrival, one of them said, "Dinrosiel awaits you."

* * *

Sylena was so nervous that most of the meeting was a blur. Nothing much was said, except for a welcome to the camp. As the others departed leaving her alone with Dinrosiel, she began to squirm, trying to make herself more comfortable.

Dinrosiel smiled at her. "Vesta, you take after your mother in looks as well as in manner. She could never sit still either."

Sylena smiled. "I want to know more of my parents, and I don't know if I will become accustomed to being called Vesta."

"And you will learn much more of them. I will only call you Vesta when we talk alone, and you can call me uncle. Now I want to take you to meet the rest of the family."

"The rest of the family?"

"Don't worry, they only bite on feast days."

Sylena felt her jangling nerves. Elric never mentioned anyone other than Dinrosiel. They walked from the camp with four armed elves following close behind. "Do they follow you everywhere?"

"Yes."

"That must be a pain."

Dinrosiel chuckled. "It can be, but it is not one I will share alone anymore."

"Why do you say that?"

"Two of the guards are mine. The other two are yours."

"What?" Sylena replied in a loud sharp voice. "Sorry, I didn't mean to yell."

"You are my niece, so it follows you will be a target. When you were under a geis, no one knew who you were. Word of your presence here will spread quickly."

His words of caution kept her silent as they continued away from camp. Dinrosiel came to a sudden stop. "Mentally call for Chton and Ithon to come."

Sylena felt very nervous but did as Dinrosiel told her. Dinrosiel's hand on her arm prevented her from leaping back when two white dogs as large as horses appeared from thin air.

"Chton is on the left and Ithon on the right. They are mates and will assist you in battle."

"Can I ride them?"

Dinrosiel chuckled as Ithon bowed low to the ground. "There is your answer."

Sylena approached Ithon slowly. She put her hands on the dog's bent shoulders and swung up. She gripped Ithon's fur and said, "I'm ready."

Dinrosiel vanished, and she sat atop Ithon, staring at a vast valley below her. "How is this even possible?" She had so many more questions but for now she wanted to enjoy this glorious ride.

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